Tom Gliatto
January 08, 1996 12:00 PM

COMEDIAN-ACTRESS ROSIE O’DONNELL, who played Betty in The Flintstones movie and currently cruises the aisles with fellow Kmart shopper Penny Marshall in the discount chain’s TV commercials, has signed to host a new syndicated talk-variety show for Warner Bros. Her program, due this summer, is being hyped as the sane, pleasant alternative to the overcrowded field of reality-based talk shows, those daily shout-fests maligned by crusading politicians and TV critics as if they had sprung from the syphilitic mind of a Roman emperor.

O’Donnell will focus on celebrity guests and musical acts. She most definitely won’t be convening a panel of cross-dressing gangsters or addressing such topics as “My Friend Is a Thief,” to cite two reality-based shows from 1995. She is being paid bucketfuls to make nice (Variety reported that one studio’s losing bid for her services came in at $4 million). As a personality, O’Donnell is worth that much. She is telegenic, rough around the edges, good-hearted and has a quick, peppery humor. She always reminds me of a lobster. I like lobster.

But I wouldn’t want to view the world exclusively through Rosie-colored glasses. Or Oprah Winfrey’s viewfinder, for that matter, now that she has ascended to her Eleanor Roosevelt phase. You see, reality-based shows are important. They’re maybe even essential. Yes, they are repulsive, exploitative, preposterous, idiotic, debasing and sometimes phony, but their basis remains reality, after all, and we should never deny that.

Women denounce their daughters-in-law on these shows, daughters attack their fathers, and brothers criticize sisters. Why? Because children are being raised poorly, vows are being broken, precious income squandered and substances abused. The emblematic, eternal guest, it seems to me, is a middle-aged woman, heavyset and boiling mad. Oh, the inchoate, explosive anger! Oh, the crabbed desperation! These unhappy Americans are struggling to solve their problems and make sense of their lives, and they have decided (or have been cajoled by savvy producers into thinking) that venting on TV is a solution. It’s not, of course. But, like it or hate it, such raw and authentic misery deserves its due.

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