O, The Oprah Magazine

There is little about the Oprah Winfrey media empire that I don't find inordinately entertaining. The emphatic you-go-girl banter, the free Pontiacs, the Oprah-goes-to-an-impoverished-place-and-hugs-children-and-delivers-ponchos-and-we-all-feel-good-about-humanity-for-18-brief-seconds segments. She acts. She diets. She runs marathons faster than I do. There is no mountain she can't climb (and, of course, subsequently document for a prime-time spectacularo featuring fellow human cash register Dr. Phil).

Her magazine, however, seems to have taken her worshipful and easily led audience for granted. O, The Oprah Magazine celebrates the obvious in the most obviously obvious way possible. The publication relies on the tried and true--as well it should, given the brand's beyond-reproach status--meaning that we're treated to recipes and book lists and what I'll elegantly describe as "a really big photograph of Idaho." But while that might be a smart business decision, it doesn't exactly make for scintillating reading. A seven-page interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Oprah doesn't deign to ask about the dreeeaaaammmy Anderson Cooper? What is this, U.S. News & World Report?

Any issue of O, The Oprah Magazine necessarily begins with the Oprah-tastic cover photo. Can you imagine some of the conversations that go on in the mag's art department? "No, we've already used Oprah being fitted for opera glasses and Oprah behind the wheel of the General Lee. How about Oprah wearing a beret while fly-fishing in the Ozarks with the two surviving Baldwin brothers?" This month, the cover theme might best be described as "Oprah, smiling, touching her chin." Man, that augurs bad things--BAD THINGS--for the pages that follow.

Or not. The September issue is as airy and eminently browsable as any magazine on the rack today. You get meticulously tailored items on successful women business owners, a few polite giggles in Martha Beck's "Why Can't Life Be Like TiVo?" exegesis, and a foldout calendar featuring a horrifying depiction of three pterodactyls ripping apart a young child limb by limb (okay, it's only a garden scene--just checking whether you were paying attention). There are style tips and advice columns aplenty, plus raves for jeans with apples embroidered on the ass and so-called "creamware" that "makes everyday meals feel sweeter." I hear you loud and clear, dude.

My disdain for simplemindedness aside, I recognize why O, The Oprah Magazine has resonated with readers. Tonally, it eschews the negative--most people likely get enough of that in their day-to-day lives, thank you very much--and design-wise, it presents every morsel of information colorfully and with a distinctly modern feel. Just look at the densely packed "Shopping for Fall" and "Getting Dressed" fashion spreads: shopping-only mags could learn a lot from their spare elegance.

But for me, all this ain't enough. Through her book club, Oprah could convince the nation to devour Carrot Top's "Red on the Outside, Blue on the Inside" as if it were something out of the Richard Russo canon. Fortunately, she uses her gargantuan influence mostly for good, turning slack-jawed TV devotees onto essential fare like "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Yet despite her treacly opening and closing notes and her "O List" of recommendations, Oprah doesn't seem inclined to similarly throw her weight around on behalf of the mag that bears her name.

Somebody--either Goethe or Spider-Man's step-grampa--once said: "With great power comes great responsibility." And as witnessed by her book club and her astonishing charitable outreach, Oprah knows how to wield the baton. That sense of direction and purpose, however, is absent in the September issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Too bad--she's got the grandest pulpit in the history of mass media, and she's missing an opportunity to raise the bar.

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