About a third of the way through part two of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, there was an ad for an upcoming show on Oprah’s OWN channel, an installment of Our America with Lisa Ling cashing in on the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. The ad felt redundant, because as far as cynical sadomasochistic TV goes, I doubt anything can top what we experienced over the past two nights.
Winfrey’s three-hour sit-down with Armstrong had a ritualized quality. Winfrey was the disciplinarian mechanically stripping the flesh from Armstrong, who stared back at her with dead eyes. There wasn’t a second when authentic feeling escaped from either of them. They were going through the motions because OWN is a struggling new network that needs periodic ratings boosts from Oprah herself (see my colleague Joe Adalian’s piece for details) and because this is how celebrity culture works. A famous deceiver is exposed and called to account for his sins. He goes on TV looking properly abashed. The host opens up her dental surgery kit a la Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man and goes to work. The shamed one takes it because when you’re famous and have been bad, talk shows are where you go to explain yourself, absorb punishment, and beg forgiveness.
As part two began last night, I pictured guest and host arriving at the front gates of OWN and getting their time cards punched. (“Mornin’, Oprah.” “Mornin’, Lance.”) The seven-time Tour de France winner publicly admitted he’d used performance-enhancing drugs, but by now everybody had been assured it was true and we had no reason to think it wasn’t. It was Armstrong’s word against the world’s. His confession to Oprah wasn’t a bombshell, but a period placed at the end of a very long sentence. OWN was the last big stop on his personal Tour de Shame. The cyclist has been privately apologizing to everyone in his orbit, and now he had to do it on TV. What better host than Winfrey, who’d interviewed him before, and had helped to drape him in the robes of legend? “In order to grant redemption, we want and need the Oprah/Walters moment,” wrote TV Week’s Chuck Ross last October.
The interview afforded more insight into Winfrey than Armstrong. She’s a warm, aspirational figure, or tries to come across that way. When she locks into disciplinary mode, it’s personal – because she had endorsed the worthiness of another person’s life and deeds on national TV, and subsequent scandals exposed her as being just gullible as everybody else. See also: Frey, James, whose fabricated book Oprah helped turn into a bestseller. “I did that show, and I was pretty defensive,” Winfrey told TV Guide of the now-legendary Frey takedown. “I was defending my turf, and defending every single viewer that bought that book. I am standing here on behalf of the reader who is pissed off.” Well, maybe, but when she whips out that Marathon Man dental kit and goes to work on a deceiver’s gums, she’s mostly there on behalf of Oprah Winfrey, political and financial powerhouse and avatar of liberal values — a respected woman who has no more love of being played for a fool than anyone else.
Despite the news value of Armstrong’s public confession, the whole thing had a numb, bored quality — and why wouldn’t it? Armstrong’s deceptions are so longstanding and varied that pretty much everyone he’s wronged has said they won’t even be able to forgive him for years, maybe ever. Even if he tries to redeem himself by purging illegal drugs from professional cycling, nobody will believe he’s acting from sincere remorse and righteousness. As for Winfrey, she’s made it clear – by quitting her daytime talk show, appearing on camera less frequently, and trying to evolve into more of a business mogul, impresario, mentor, and lifestyle brander — that TV hosting isn’t her heart’s desire anymore. Not that being a broadcaster is any more satisfying: she’s said that if she had it to do over again, she never would have started OWN. Every time she appears on her self-named cable channel there’s a whiff of financial duress. It is becoming increasingly clear that OWN can’t be a success simply because its shows and performers have Oprah’s blessing. It needs Oprah herself.
The only authentic-seeming moments from Armstrong were his tearful account of confessing to his son and his admissions that he’d been controlling every aspect of his life for decades, and therefore couldn’t handle the realization that certain things – namely cancer and being exposed as a lying doper – were beyond his control. The “I can’t believe he said that!” high point was Armstrong’s admission that he told Betsy Andreu, the wife of his former teammate Frankie Andreu, “I called you crazy. I called you a bitch, I called you all these things, but I never called you ‘fat’.”
Such moments, however intriguing, weren’t sturdy enough pegs to support three hours of talk, though. Too much of this epic consisted of a host asking questions she didn’t seem urgently interested in, most of which had been asked and answered elsewhere by others, and the guest replying in cagey language, miming psychic distress that his face didn’t naturally indicate. “Without a doubt … the biggest challenge of the rest of my life is not to slip up again,” Armstrong told Winfrey, who concluded the interview by telling him that the truth “sets you free.” And then they punched out and went home for the day.