Monday, March 3, 2008

Carlana Stone remains on "Oprah's Big Give" - for now

Carlana Stone on "Oprah's Big Give"

Those of you who read this blog probably know how few people with disabilities actually appear on TV, but the new ABC reality philanthropy show "Oprah's Big Give", which premiered March 2, is adding to those numbers. I am not much for reality TV, but I reported a few weeks ago that one of the contestants on this new show, in which people work to raise money to help someone in need, is a wheelchair user.

Her name is Carlana Stone and she is an LA TV producer. She became a paraplegic at age 17 after a car she was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. She has a high energy, assertive personality and will be a good "real disabled person" for the audience to get to know. (Mostly audiences get to know fictional disabled people on TV.) Stone calls her wheelchair a type of positive force in her life rather than something restraining. In her intro on the first show, she said, "the wheelchair was never the biggest obstacle. The biggest obstacle -- those looks of pity." Her personal philanthropy background is a foundation she started to provide online networking for injured Iraqi veterans.

Although her performance on the first "Oprah's Big Give" was a bit dicey, she said she learned from her mistakes. She and another contestant were charged with raising money to help a medical student find funds to pay back his student loans so he could start helping children in the inner city with free treatment sooner rather than later. They had the questionable idea of a fashion show to raise money, which didn't receive any donations, and they only were able to raise the $50,000 they did because one of Stone's contacts got in touch with actor Jamie Foxx, who donated the money. The other contestant she worked with, Sheg Aranmolate, complained she was difficult to work with. And I found this to be refreshing -- a person with a disability being treated like any other contestant.

But the show is not perfect. Many of the shots of all the contestants have them walking or standing so it is difficult to see Carlana in the shot. However, the end session, in which the three judges decide who stays and who goes, is a seated shot, so a wheelchair user is better integrated into the shot. Carlana Stone almost got eliminated on the first show (the judges were rightfully critical of the fashion show that raised no money), so it will be interesting if she learns from her mistakes as she said she would.

David Zurawik, TV critic at The Baltimore Sun, wrote an in-depth review of the show and praised it for not falling into the usual cheesy trappings of reality TV and for reflecting the economic problems the USA faces. "The real power of the series comes from the way that it taps into mounting economic jitters and growing concerns about the direction in which American life is headed," he writes.

"What counts" about the show, Zurawik says, "is that Winfrey and ABC have taken the much-maligned reality TV format and used it to create a show that both entertains and encourages viewers to think about such matters as how best to help others."