Wrote this for PolicyMic.
Oz the Great and Powerful and the Dr. Oz Show have something in common, and it’s not just the proximity of a certain vowel to a certain consonant. Both are products of an entertainment industry bundled with substance to market a sensational experience. Where Oz the Great and Powerful exploits a well-known story, bankable actors, and special effects to woo the film goer out of more than a couple of bucks, the Dr. Oz Show too relies on the reality TV equivalent of bankable actors and special effects to draw a crowd of viewers and a gaggle of advertisers.
It’s easy enough to understand the profit motive for recreating the magic of Oz. The 1939 movie adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was named by the Library of Congress the most syndicated movie on television, perhaps because it’s been on air since 1956. And we all know the Library of Congress is a kingmaker when it comes to visual entertainment. To make another movie set in the Oz universe is as tempting as it is easy — the beloved position of the story in popular culture practically markets itself.
Likewise, it’s easy enough to understand the turning gears that produced the Dr. Oz Show. It’s tough to find a medical television personality as well-qualified and personable as Dr. Mehmet Oz. He graduated from Harvard and has both an MD and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. He was the president of his med school student body and won an awful lot of awards before his his career began in earnest. For over a decade Dr. Oz has been a professor of surgery at Columbia; he directs New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program. Let’s not even get into the hundreds of scientific articles he’s penned and multiple nonprofit and private ventures he serves. Before heading his own show, Oz was famous for frequent guest appearances on Oprah. Once again, Dr. Oz’s background practically (and probably literally) markets himself.
Both go wrong when they go for the money. Many critics have panned Oz the Great and Powerful for its uninspired acting and tonal inconsistency. James Franco, in particular, is suffering from comparisons to his likewise deer-in-the-headlights role hosting the Oscars. The mild-mannered David Edelstein of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, spares little mercy for Franco: “It’s not that Franco is bad. He doesn’t risk enough to be bad.” However, where actors are deflated and plot points are critiqued, the special effects emerge as an unexpected subject ofpraise.
The Dr. Oz Show doesn’t answer to critics in the same way a big production motion picture does, but the show has drawn it’s own cadre of devoted hate-watchers. The group blogScience-Based Medicine, whose editorial team is comprised mostly of medical doctors, haspages and pages of blog posts decrying the quackery of Dr. Oz’s more eccentric episodes. Among these are take-downs of the doctor’s endorsement of green coffee bean extract as a weight-loss miracle, promotion of red palm oil as a miracle for longevity, and more. Both Slatemagazine and the New York Daily News have asked whether Dr. Oz is unethical. Michael Specter’s piece in the New Yorker this February found problematic Dr. Oz’s dismissal of data, as if medicine is just the latest field to take a postmodern turn.
That both Oz the Great and Powerful and the Dr. Oz Show are sensational extensions of otherwise worthy legacies is not entirely a function of industry greed. The preeminence of spectacle, or special effects, says something more.
Movies in the fantasy genre are readily recognized vehicles for wish fulfillment. Special effects are one of many tools employed to expand the universe of possible fantasies. Supported by technologically-leaping, marginally diminishing suspensions of belief, special effects can sell a fantasy as a credible experience. Talk shows are their own kind of fantasies. Predicated on the lie — which is not automatically a bad thing — of sharing an close relationship with the host, talk shows go on to have a conversation with each viewer, offering an encouraging, one-sided dialogue on problems the viewer thought he had, as well as many he never considered.
Where movies can employ visual special effects, television shows based in reality don’t quite rely on CGI models and green screens. But the credibility of a talk show must come from somewhere. On The Dr. Oz Show, episodes frequently invoke miracles and crises, did-you-knows and you-never-would-have-guessed’s, newest breakthroughs and long-guarded secrets, and so on. The fantasy of living in a world where weight loss is a daily-tip away is a difficult one to sustain when most do not actually lose weight with a daily tip. And yet if Nielson ratingsare any indication, the fantasies of the Dr. Oz Show are well-accepted. This is because in this talk show, the host himself is the special effect.
It is precisely because Dr. Oz is so well established that a show sitting on wobbly pseudoscience can do so well. Here the relationship to The Wizard of Oz comes full circle. As a special effect, Dr. Oz is very much like the Wizard — fundamentally powerless in his castle, save for the illusions he creates for those hungry for fantasies of well-being. Many have already taken a close account of the man behind the curtain. Perhaps what’s needed is an appraisal of the Emerald City.