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Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey: The TV review

We know how Lance Armstrong did last night, but how about Oprah — Oprah Winfrey, bearer of a worldwide exclusive designed to lift OWN into the ranks of a network that people actually watch?

The grade is incomplete to a certain extent, because part two arrives tonight, but part one provided enough substance to make at least this observation — Oprah wasn't entirely present and accounted for.

The Oprah of “Oprah" -- of thousands of hours of shows where she bled into millions of living rooms across the country and devoted fans, in turn, bled back into her. The Oprah of empathy and sympathy and passion and new agisms that seek to put comforting bandages on gaping wounds of the psyche.

She was, in a sense, miscast in a role she's not entirely comfortably in — as dispassionate reporter seeking the facts without regard to her own feelings (or life). And — as Oprah fans know so well — that inner, and outer,  life is exactly what Oprah is all about, all the time.

Nevertheless, I do think she proved the doubters wrong, too — those, particularly in the British press, who dismiss her as a mere celebrity interviewer without the chops to handle this kind of pressure, or those who said this was a stunt engineered by Armstrong to give himself the smoothest possible landing. She was prepared, she knew the history, or clearly some of it, and her questions demonstrated knowledge of why his betrayal was so great.

But at some point, viewers expect their professional interlocutors to become stand-ins or surrogates for their own feelings, judge and jury, who bring down the gavel hard on the miscreant who has betrayed their trust. Oprah, during her James Frey interview, certainly established that she can do that, but the Frey interview was personal. He had betrayed HER.

This interview was not personal. Armstrong had really not betrayed Oprah, and in a sense was doing her the biggest favor anyone could possibly do for her, which was to confer legitimacy on her troubled network. She almost seemed grateful at moments. You almost expected her to lean over and whisper, “Thank you Lance ... thank you!”

She had no passion, no anger, no sense that stirring deep within her being was righteous indignation. Oprah was present, but in a sense, not entirely present either.

Fact is, this is not the type of interview Oprah excels in. She is fundamentally a believer in the goodness of humanity, in the innate decency of human beings. As queen of daytime, she was avatar of an up-with-people spirit. She wanted to believe that given a choice, most people would do the right thing, the good thing. She never quite understood people who did bad things. That wasn't her thing, if you will, because she couldn't empathize with that impulse. And empathy, at the end of the day, is what Oprah is all about.

Was she hard enough on Armstrong? Not nearly, not remotely. She needed to lean in, push back, poke hard. Get him off his game, off his answers. Make him stumble, make him sweat. She needed to fluster him, bug him, interrupt him, and most of all make him wonder “why the hell am I doing this ...?"

We all knew Armstrong had lied. What we didn't get from this interview was why he had lied so long and so hard, and with such incredible vehemence. Oprah needed to drag that bodily out of him because in a very real sense viewers who have idolized him for so many years wanted to understand that.

But as I said, Oprah doesn't really understand why people do bad things.

Let's see what happens tonight.

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