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Television | Show about motivational speakers falls flat

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

The Messengers (TLC, Sunday, 10 p.m. ET) is trying to find America's next motivational speaker. The season begins with 10 contestants, like the poet, the missionary, the teacher. Each week, they take a field trip to feel someone else's pain: living with the homeless, working on a migrant farm, and so on.

They then write and deliver a speech (with topics like "Charity" and "Struggle") for an audience and two judges. Each week, one speaker is delivered a message of his own: Go home.

These days, when you can't trust a college graduate to speak clearly and when the president stumbles over syntax like Gerald Ford over stairs, The Messengers is not a bad idea. Maybe this show will teach us what a great speech sounds like. Maybe. But probably not.

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One problem is that the messengers themselves seem a little juvenile and dim. The contestants walk around Los Angeles wide-eyed and appalled that homeless people are actually without homes. On the farm, they are horrified by the difficulty of cutting broccoli stalks.

They don't seem to have any insight on human nature, either, which one would think necessary for a motivational speaker. They simply feel bad for the homeless, feel bad for farmers, feel bad for everybody who can't be comfortably at home watching TLC. These are not people who should be motivating others.

This means the speeches are weak. Most of them end up sounding the same: strings of clichés and abstractions and pregnant pauses and multisyllabic words that are meant to rouse us to feel, well, something. But what kind of something? If these guys are the messengers, it's not clear what the message is supposed to be.

The judges are even less articulate. A good speech judge makes comments on things like diction and physicality and content, but these two guys say helpful things like "Wow!"

A show about speechmaking needs articulate speakers and articulate judges: The Messengers has neither.

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key


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