The title screen for “Oprah’s Book Club” on Apple TV+ is a portrait in serenity. Reclining on a divan, wearing what I can only fantasize is very, very expensive cashmere in lush neutral tones, Oprah Winfrey is relaxing — Apple Watch on her wrist, iPad in her hand — and reading a book.
That book, we’re to believe, is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Water Dancer,” Winfrey’s latest selection for her book club, which started as a segment on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1996. The segment has evolved and expanded over the years, and now includes significant online engagement; this new incarnation debuted as a one-hour show last week on Apple TV+.
Yes, “Oprah’s Book Club” is product placement on a number of levels — but it doesn’t seem forced or vulgar. This is the future of commerce-based entertainment: It’s well-produced, it’s interesting, and it seamlessly incorporates social media to create a community. It is hard to overemphasize how important the show is to book publishers — 50 million books have been sold after Oprah’s blessing, by her own count — and this imprimatur will definitely help purchases on the Apple Books application.
This is because of Winfrey’s effortless charisma and warmth on camera. One woman in the audience tears up immediately when she walks on stage, thereby triggering all of us empathetic criers at the thrill to her proximity. And it absolutely doesn’t hurt that Winfrey’s first guest is Coates discussing his debut novel that chronicles the journey of an enslaved man with rare gifts; Coates is a writer (“Between the World and Me”, “We Were Eight Years in Power”) so searing and incisive that his work almost burns your fingers as it burns into your brain.
Overall, this is the best show to come out of the launch of Apple TV+ and it is really a big question mark as to why only clips instead of screeners were provided to the press ahead of time. Winfrey is without peer. She is close to supernatural in her ability to command a room, and watching her return to a talk show format at New York’s Apple Carnegie Library is exhilarating.
The first episode of “Oprah’s Book Club” is conducted in the round, so Winfrey and Coates have their backs to half of the audience for most of the time. This is, on the surface of it, insane — but Winfrey effortlessly commands even those seated behind her as well as those watching on screens. Winfrey’s and Coates discussion is intercut with online reader reactions, questions from the audience, and a multi-part package of Coates visiting Monticello.
There is an honesty to the dialogue that is missing from the superficial sheen of so much internet-influenced discourse these days. At one point Winfrey calls on former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the audience to discuss the process of removing Confederate memorials from the city, and the discussion evolves into how then, as now, family separation is weaponized.
That this exchange comes in the guise of what is essential a slick infomercial for a book shows how our response to advertising has been altered by the modern age. I mindlessly buy shoes based solely on an Instagram ad, so listening to Coates and Winfrey talk thoughtfully about America’s original and enduring sin of slavery as an inspiration for “The Water Dancer” is mind-blowing. Ad or not, I don’t care. It’s rare and compelling.
Reader, I bought the book.
“Oprah’s Book Club” is available on Apple TV+; she will announce her next book pick tomorrow.