Tuned In

Rosie O’Donnell, Queen of Dusk

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OWN

Rosie O’Donnell began the second night of her OWN network talk show, The Rosie Show, by reading a selection of reviews of the first night of The Rosie Show, for the audience to cheer or boo. I didn’t review the first night, but this immediately put me in mind of my inborn advantage as a TV critic: having a surname that no one can pronounce.

There were some barbs (Linda Stasi of the New York Post dismissed the dancing-boys segment as “a bad Oscar skit”) and some praise (especially from The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, whom she rewarded by posting his head shot and announcing, “Not only are you a brilliant writer, but you’re a handsome man”—which he is!).

In truth, most coverage I’ve seen of the debut night fell somewhere in between, such as Mary McNamara’s summation of it as “not-bad, pretty good, kinda funny, sort of smart,” which seems just about right. The Rosie Show is nothing revolutionary, but it does as much as reasonably can be expected of a talk show in its first week, and—thanks to the experience of its star—has the feeling of a show that’s been on the air for months longer.

One thing that contributes to the in-between, kinda-this-thing, kinda-that feeling of Rosie is its timeslot—live at 7 p.m. ET—and the way the staging and tone reflects it. In a taped bit, Jimmy Fallon welcomed Rosie to “nighttime TV,” but what is that daypart anyway? The usual redoubt of Access Hollywood, Wheel of Fortune and Seinfeld reruns, it’s sort of night and sort of not. Sundown? Dusk? Early evening? Pre-primetime?

So the show itself is a kind of hybrid of elements of daytime and late-night TV. The heavy studio audience interaction recalls daytime shows like Ellen (or Rosie’s old show); both nights (dusks?) so far featured gameshow segments, last night’s pairing studio audience members with guests Wanda Sykes and Gloria Estefan. (Estefan had a surprisingly hard time at the “Build That Tune” game, complaining it was too tough to identify a song by starting with the drum part. Rhythm is goona get you, Gloria!)

Fair or not, the female-forwardness of the show—a woman host, bandleader, announcer, etc.—also suggests daytime, or at least late-night from an alternate, more equitable universe. The logo, on the other hand, suggests late night, as does the set, with its subdued lighting and rich nocturnal purples, the live broadcast and the off-the-cuff humor, which is salty enough for late-night. It’s like 11 a.m. had a baby with 11 p.m.

But meeting in the middle is not a bad place for Rosie O’Donnell to be. As a host of The View, she put off some viewers (and previous fans) with her sharp-elbowed arguing, while her last foray into TV was her ill-advised variety show for NBC, which indulged her corniest I’m-puttin’-on-a-show side. The Rosie Show may have found a happy medium between Serious-Adult Rosie and Showbiz-Kid Rosie, giving her a medium to talk with people she likes about things that matter to her, while keeping positive and showing the live audience a good time.

A lot of talk-show stars are good hosts; what distinguishes Rosie is that she’s a great fan. She really likes the things she likes, and she wants to tell you about them! (A quality she shares with Fallon, come to think of it.) In last night’s show, for instance, she extolled the pleasure of Chubby Hubby ice cream and gushed about her enthusiam for “BFF” Estefan’s new album. But she also steered the conversational toward the personal, talking with Sykes about the experience of being a lesbian mother. (Something she underscored lightly by ending Build That Tune with “I’m Coming Out,” on National Coming Out Day.)

The temptation is to say that the best way to build a talk show around a star is to let them be themselves, but it’s more complicated than that. The challenge is here is to let the host have fun without blowing away the rest of the show with schmaltzy showmanship—to let Rosie be Rosie, without letting her be ROH-SIEEEEEE!, as it were. So far, The Rosie Show seems to strike a good balance, falling just on the good side of amateurish and indulging the host’s passions in a way that’s fun, not overbearing.

Rosie’s biggest strength is the un-self-conscious pleasure she brings to talk TV, with all its stunts and banter; she gives you the feeling that she would have a great time being an audience member on her own show. The Rosie Show may or may not get the home audience to show up—it got a modest start its first night in the ratings—but this live, semi-improv format would seem to give her the best shot at it, if an audience wants to find her.

I say that not because Rosie might quote me. But just in case, it’s “Pah-nuh-WAH-zick.”

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