Martha Gets Her Act Together

The ex-jailbird has dropped the ice-queen persona of old. If her new NBC show is any indication, she's going to draw a lot of new fans

By Patricia O'Connell

I was never a big fan of Martha Stewart, especially her TV persona. I thought she was frosty and condescending when demonstrating any of her numerous, undeniable talents -- and conceited, self-serving, and woefully out-of-touch when being interviewed or making statements to the press. Consequently, I wasn't expecting much from her new talk show, Martha, which debuted Sept. 12 on NBC. Yet I have to admit that Stewart, who has a proven ability to make just about anything, managed to make a fan out of me.

While this show, like previous Stewart offerings, will have guests and highlight such staples as cooking, decorating, crafts, and gardening, Martha is different. For one thing, it's billed as a talk show -- even though it has no couches, because as Stewart pointed out, the show is about "doing" -- rather than a how-to show. But more than anything, it's Martha who is different. In contrast to the strict, humorless, superior know-it-all of yore, Stewart was funny, down to earth, light-hearted, and well, likeable.


  From the opening credits, it's clear that Martha wants to be viewed differently. We see home movies of her childhood, Stewart being affectionate with her daughter, Alexis, and pictures from her modeling days. Stewart does some exaggerated posing in front of her modeling shots. It was good to see that she's not taking herself so seriously -- and she continued in that vein for the rest of the hour.

The first segment, an homage to New Orleans, was a little off-putting. For example, a clip showing how to make beignets -- the pillow-shaped doughnuts native to New Orleans -- wasn't a welcome respite from the devastating scenes dominating the news. Instead, it seemed inappropriate and frivolous, even though Stewart's comments were anything but. Still, it was the only disconcerting thing in the hourlong show.

She showed an ability to poke fun at herself and her image by having as her first guest actress Marcia Cross, from ABC's (DIS ) Desperate Housewives. Cross plays Bree, a woman whose relentless pursuit of domestic perfection has sparked comparisons to Stewart. By running a clip from Housewives that showed Bree at the height of her cold, domestic divadom, Stewart was able to turn the joke around.


  It was also a shrewd move, because the Housewives character is somewhat exaggerated -- so, by default, Stewart seemed twice as engaging and fun. She also showed good humor by donning -- and keeping on -- the black, faux fur-trimmed apron that Cross brought as a gift.

More important, though, Stewart didn't come across as an obnoxious know-it-all, even when she was teaching the decidedly undomestic Cross how to fold a T-shirt or cook scrambled eggs (and serve them in an eggshell). While clearly in control, Stewart was helpful and instructive. So much so that instead of being intimidated and turned off, as I always was before when watching Stewart do something, I felt I could actually learn something from this new, less-manic Martha.

She also proved herself to be, well, a good egg, when she made a surprise visit to someone's home to see what they were cooking for dinner -- and naturally, offer some advice. Her enthusiasm for the spaghetti and meatballs seemed genuine, and she took it in stride when the pasta was overcooked. Stewart even made an offhand reference to her prison stay, when playing cards with the people she visited. The comment was so casual and matter of fact that it could have easily slipped one's notice. That tone is just right and should serve her well.


  If anything, Stewart may have to be careful about not making too much fun of herself and her legal problems. The second show is going to feature ponchos, a none-too-subtle reference to the garment that Stewart famously wore when released from prison in March.

Although I don't think she has to wear a hairshirt forever, showing up in a poncho too often would be a mistake. And let's hope there's not a segment on sprucing up electronic ankle bracelets, though considering Stewart took hers off the end of August, that seems unlikely.

Stewart was also able to work in some nice plugs for GE (GE ), owner of NBC, which will air not only this show but her upcoming version of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. (The set's kitchen includes GE appliances, so the praise wasn't out of nowhere.) And then there were the K-mart (SHLD ) ads, featuring Martha Stewart products. Indeed, Martha is still the mistress of synergy.


  Will I watch Stewart every day? No, because I work (and I don't have a DVR). But I'd tune in given the chance, and I'm now genuinely curious to see how she fares with her would-be Apprentices.

Is the nice Martha a daytime persona only? Actually, I hope not. While the reality show wouldn't be any fun with Martha being a softie who cries every time she axes someone, I'll be disappointed if she shows her preprison personality.

So Martha, congratulations on the new show, good luck with The Apprentice, and next time I'm attempting to fold a T-shirt, I'll try to do it right since you were so nice about it.

O'Connell is a news editor for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

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