Mitch Haddad. ABC
Oprah Winfrey, right, and Jamie Oliver

Only Oprah Winfrey could give us a reality/competition show in which contestants compete to be the most charitable.

If you're running a network and Winfrey tells you she's got a show she'd like to do, you're going to say yes. This is Oprah we're talking about, after all, and so "Oprah's Big Give" debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4.

After so many mean-spirited "reality" shows have worn out their welcome, it's nice to see a show where people are competing to do good. And without any guarantee that they will themselves be rewarded in the end.

The winner is going to get $1 million, but that will be a Big Surprise in the eighth and final episode.

"The fact that people had no idea that there was a prize at the end makes it very pure," executive producer Ellen Rakieten said in a conference call. "So when people are doing something for somebody else, you don't have to question their motives."

Only their methods. And that's how the 10 contestants will be evaluated by judges Jamie Oliver ("The Naked Chef"), NFL player Tony Gonzalez and Chris Rock's wife, charity founder Malaak Compton Rock.

The folks at Winfrey's production company teamed up with the producers of "The Amazing Race" to create a show that's sort of a combination of "Race" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The 10 contestants go from city to city and are given assignments of who to help, and they have to figure out how to do that.

In Sunday's premiere, Winfrey hands the contestants an envelope with the name and picture of a person who needs help, along with $2,500. The contestants — including an Iraq war veteran, a former male model and international disaster relief worker, a 22-year-old dot-com millionaire, a former girl gang member, a paraplegic TV producer and a pageant queen — have five days to try to change that person's life.

("Big Give" is hosted by Nate Berkus, an interior designer who frequently appears on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Winfrey herself will make multiple appearances.)

In addition to all the charity, "Oprah's Big Give" is still a competition, and the contestants are, well, competitive.

"The truth of the matter is, is when you put 10 very different people in a competitive situation, although they did not know that there was prize money at the end, and you give them very intense deadlines, you are going to have some drama," Rakieten said. "I mean, there is a show where somebody threatened to walk off" and another when contestants "mix it up."

"When you're at high-pressure, competitive situations and you have a real deadline, things happen."

And this is, after all, a show that's designed to entertain as well as inspire.

"We made it a competition for one simple reason. ... There's nothing like a little good old-fashioned competition to kind of get you moving," Rakieten said. However, she promised that "nobody leaves humiliated."

But if you're looking for a good cry, you can find that in "Oprah's Big Give" as well.

"Just about every week I was in tears, which is pretty hard because I'm obviously a butch fellow, and we don't cry," Oliver said. "But every single week there was emotional things happening."

At least in the premiere, however, it's not sickeningly sweet. It's fun to watch and will look very familiar to "Amazing Race" fans.

"We hope that people are entertained. We hope that people have fun watching it. We hope that people root for somebody that they really like, and we hope that it's inspirational," Rakieten said. "Our mission statement is ... inform, enlighten, uplift and entertain."

Mission accomplished.


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