The Consumer Republic

Victim’s Rights
If you’re a TV syndicator looking to launch the next talk-show sensation in a market saturated with dysfunctional gladiators ˆ la The Jerry Springer Show, what ploy is most likely to succeed? The anti-Springer, of course. Twentieth Television hopes it has found that very thing with Mother Love, the empathy-oozing hostess of talk-show comer Forgive or Forget.
While Springer and company exploit conflict, Mother Love exploits “healing.” Described in a press release as a “unique public forum for those who have wronged [family and friends] to make amends,” Forgive or Forget’s format brings the repentant sinner before a huge door. The open portal either reveals the injured party (forgiven!) or yawning emptiness (forget it!). It combines the suspense of The Price Is Right with the satisfactions of The People’s Court.
Since it premiered last spring, the show boasts ratings increases of 25 percent to 50 percent in some markets, even knocking off Oprah on occasion in New York. Warm, uplifting and proudly plus-sized, Mother Love possesses the one-of-us appeal of the original Oprah, long before the personal-chef-de-low-fat cuisine and glam-girl Hollywood makeover. A former welfare mother turned bus driver turned drive-time radio-show host, Mother is as effective weeping for guests whose hopes of reconciliation are fulfilled, as she is hugging and comforting those who’ve been disappointed.
Nor could anyone argue with her common sense counsel: Deal with the past, put it behind you and the lessons you’ve learned will take you to a brighter day. It’s the best, if usually ignored, advice anyone nursing a pain or grievance could hope for. Even apologizer-in-chief Bill Clinton could identify with one Jeff Stewart, who, the announcer intones, “treated his ex-girlfriend like garbage.”
Jeff confesses to cheating on her, stealing from her and–most damning in the eyes of the audience–taking the furniture he bought her when he moved out. He’d just finished a four-year prison stint when they met, he explains, and he didn’t know how to treat a woman with the respect she deserves. Now he’s learned his lesson and wants her back. But there is no Cadillac behind door No. 1; his ex doesn’t show. The audience’s collective moan is without pity or regret; they clearly think the creep deserves it.
The payoff comes when his girlfriend gets the last word on videotape. “You’re ugly, you’re nasty, you’re dirty, you’re filthy, you’re a disease that’s contagious. I hate you,” she declares as the camera stares mercilessly at a rejected Jeff. Chair throwing is wholesome comic relief compared to this kind of psychological violence.
It’s little wonder that Jeff was the only guest in the five episodes I watched who actually asked forgiveness for wrongs committed. Most come to Mother Love not to make apologies but to demand them from others. They are sinned against, not sinning. The accused parties are often revealed to be waiting backstage from the start, where they’re seen shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at the testimony against them. They come through the door not to forgive, but to continue the fight on TV.
A couple of weeks ago, a program was devoted to a typical talk-show circus act: the tired conflict between Paula Jones’ sister and brother-in-law (who debunk Paula’s story) and adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan. Safe to say there were no apologies, but lots of sex talk and name-calling. Forgive or Forget is not so much anti-Springer as stealth-Springer.
In the ongoing evolution of the talk show, Forgive or Forget is a telling hybrid. In classic Ricki-Jenny-Sally style, it plays to our Roman-arena lust for conflict as entertainment, then it slaps us upside the head like those superstar super-egos Judge Judy and Dr. Laura. Mother Love is less ringmaster, as Jerry is so aptly described in his upcoming movie, and more strict-but-loving high school principal. When the audience begins to boo, Mother Love cuts them off. Members of the audience are not allowed to point their fingers belligerently at the guests on stage. When a guest begins her tale “Me and my boyfriend,” Mother quickly interrupts, “My boyfriend and I.” You can wallow in prurient swill, but you’ve got to speak properly while you do it.
Indeed, it’s the discipline the audience loves. When a guest ignores Mother’s admonishment to let her opponents speak, the hostess draws up her maternal bulk and informs the cotton-candy-coiffed blonde that Mother Love is running this show. I couldn’t help inwardly cheering along with the thrilled studio audience, which is why one admiring critic called the show “nearly guilt-free exploitation TV.”
Forgive or Forget allows us to indulge our creepy voyeurism and feel uplifted by it at the same time. In a proudly perverse TV genre, Forgive or Forget may be the most perverse show yet. Just another way of saying it seems destined to be a hit.