I was invited to a bloggers' luncheon yesterday to spotlight the new OWN project Our America with Lisa Ling, a series of one-hour specials devoted to unusual (or perhaps not-so-unusual) Americans. Ling, a veteran of The View who's been reporting since covering the Afghan War (not the current one!) as a 21-year-old, launches her Oprah Winfrey-sanctioned endeavor tonight at 10PM ET/PT with an installment on faith healers, and through the end of March will cover some extremely diverse people: the lives of five transgendered people, a group of sex offenders, ex-gay Christians vs. proudly gay Christian teens, a heroin-addicted Ohio town and a man who travels to Colombia on a "marriage tour."
I sort of thought of it as Real People for real smart people.
Ling sells the series as a labor of love that should stand in stark contrast with LCD TV, noting:
"As you all know, it's increasingly more challenging to tell provocative stories on TV if you don't have six-pack abs and aren't, like, going into bars getting into fights—it's harder to sell your shows...don't get me started!"
She says she felt like she was in "a foreign country" when filming her specials and admits to having strong preconceptions about each topic. For her faith-healing experience, she went in skeptical:
"Nothing angers me more than when people are manipulated by the Church or by people who profess faith."
Religion informs several of the specials. I was able to see a short snippet from the March 8 episode, entitled "Pray the Gay Away?"—she made sure to stress the question mark—in which Ling attends a meeting of ex-gay org Exodus International and speaks at length with founder Alan Chambers.
It took Ling three attempts to gain access to the Exodus International Freedom Conference, but once she attended, she seemed to assert that Exodus is not about coercion or "praying the gay away."
In the piece, Chambers is treated fairly, but comes off, to me, as a wild-eyed self-deluder who refers to his current heterosexuality as "a work in progress." But Ling's voice-over is sympathetic, even if she questions Chambers by noting that some people think he's living a lie. He replies:
"I've chosen to live my life through the filter of my faith rather than the filter of my sexuality. And as I've lived my life through the filter of my faith, my sexuality changed. That's not a lie—that's the truth."
Perhaps sensitive to accidentally giving Exodus International an infomercial, Ling also visits a camp for Christian gay youth in the rest of the episode (which I did not see).
I asked her if she had had any doubts about giving Exodus International such a voice in the first place. I noted that her heroin episode didn't feature pro-heroin voices because all reasonable people can agree heroin is bad. For me, exploring Exodus International with an open mind lends credence to their stance that it is healthy and even virtuous to wish not to be gay. Ling responded:
"The 'Pray the Gay Away' show's subject it just so controversial, so it was important for us to immerse ourselves in both worlds, whereas with the heroin show, we just kinda got immersed in that community because it was that community that was getting ravaged by heroin...
"The issue of homosexuality and Christianity is just a, that's like a real issue that I think we need to explore both sides. For me, as someone who has so many gay friends, it was important for me to definitely cover both sides.
"I guess, in a lot of ways, this series is somewhat demonstrative of my own kind of journey with faith, and that's one that is very tumultuous and very kind of up and down, and so I've always been really intrigued by faith and people who profess to have it and maybe as we go forward I will come to more conclusions for myself."
It struck me that this episode is actually less about homosexuality than it is about religion, which is interesting because during her remarks she noted that a large number of gay people are estranged from religion after having been burned by it.
I am reserving judgment until I've seen the whole episode.
Interestingly enough, the episode on transgender issues also has a religious element, but does not give airtime to those who believe being transgender is wrong. Ling was moved nearly to tears when discussing the episode, in which a Baptist, blue-collar dad describes being "so embarrassed and angry" by his son Harry, who would run through the room during poker nights all in pink. He now refers to his child (pictured) as his daughter and is allowing her to live her life the way she feels right—as Hayley:
Hayley's parents explained to Ling that they were going public for an altruistic purpose:
"They said they're in this really safe community, so even though they're really religious people, their church was so accepting, so they said that if people who are in safe communities don't stand up for people that are in unsafe communities, then we're really heading for some challenging times."
I'm very curious to watch all of the episodes, but especially the one on ex-gays and the one about transgender issues, especially after the powerful teasers I witnessed.
When asked if network boss Winfrey had a strong hand in the series, Ling said not in the "nuts and bolts," but noted she was impressed that in all her years on TV, she'd never had another network ask her about her shows intentions first before assessing its potential for ratings. Clearly, this is an attempt at reality TV with an emphasis on the "reality," and something crafted with the best of intentions. I'm hopeful it will live up to its goals.