A Country Star in Search of Her Voice
By JON CARAMANICA
How many people must hurt so that Shania Twain may heal?
That’s the question raised by “Why Not? With Shania Twain,” an odd and sympathetic show beginning Sunday that’s part episodic biography, part comeback tale and part confrontation therapy.
A decade ago Ms. Twain was the reigning queen of pop-country, a vision in synthetic hair and neon neoprene tops; she remains the top-selling female country singer of all time. The years since have been pure telenovela, though. Her husband and longtime collaborator, Mutt Lange, had an affair with her close friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud. Stranger still, Ms. Twain is now married to Ms. Thiébaud’s former husband, Fred. Ms. Twain also, because of either psychological or physical ailment, more or less lost her ability to sing.
There’s much more of this, in aching detail, in Ms. Twain’s bruiser of a memoir “From This Moment On” (Atria), which was released this week. Her childhood in small-town Ontario, it’s clear, was even more devastating.
But Ms. Twain is wealthy and still famous, and therefore able to mobilize resources — family and friends, a tour bus, the cameras of the Oprah Winfrey Network — all toward her betterment.
In each episode of her show — three were made available to critics — she visits a location that’s important to her history and attempts to sing, trying to reinscribe each place with new and happier memories. She sings a little bit more convincingly each time, but the restoration of Ms. Twain’s career (and voice) is a far less compelling arc than the excavation of her trauma; that may take a few seasons.
Notably, this show isn’t on CMT or another genre-specific outlet: Nashville still prefers its stars uncomplicated. It’s among the more eccentric and intriguing offerings on OWN, which has suffered in its first few months from excessive sincerity and a shortage of appealing rough edges. (Christina Norman, the network chief, was dismissed on Friday.)
And Ms. Twain is far from a neatly wrapped package. She’s sincere in her confusion. She professes a desire to address her past and displays almost no talent for it. When she’s uncomfortable, which is often, she cackles. Despite what must be deep pain, there’s not a whit of rage to her. She can’t say an ill word about Mr. Lange — he’s “wonderful,” “kind,” “generous” — instead reserving all her (seemingly mild) anger for Ms. Thiébaud.
What this is like for Fred, who presumably has feelings too, we never learn. He was the one to discover the infidelity — in “a quite concrete way” he says, leaving it at that. Now his main business is Ms. Twain. He mans one of the cameras here, and is a steady source of emotional support. But is he just goading Ms. Twain? Is he an aspiring Danny Moder, Julia Roberts’s cameraman husband? “Britney & Kevin: Chaotic,” the short-lived train wreck of a show about the short-lived train wreck of a relationship of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, was more revealing.
Still, the most vexing, and shortest, part of each episode is the one in which Ms. Twain recruits people whose purpose is to reflect her pain, strangers serving as proxies either for Ms. Twain (a family that’s lost both parents, a woman whose husband had an affair with her best friend) or the people who wronged her.
It’s not clear whether Ms. Twain, an accidental narcissist, is interested in learning from these encounters. In the first two episodes, it’s possible she leaves these people more wounded than she found them. (In the case of a woman who endures a rough skydiving landing in the name of being adventurous, or in the name of Ms. Twain’s being adventurous, literally so.) In the third, Ms. Twain talks to a “traitor” — a woman who had an affair with her best friend’s husband — and for the first time she becomes incensed. Afterward, she’s voluble, talking about her attempts to find closure, “accepting that I may never get that from Marie-Anne — and that’s it, I gotta just carry on expecting that that will never happen.” Fred, holding the camera, doesn’t say a word.
WHY NOT? WITH SHANIA TWAIN
OWN, Sunday night at 11, Eastern and Pacific times; 10, Central time.