As Arsenio Hall has already asked, who is this man and why does he have his own TV show? It's a fair question: At 35, Montel Williams is a heavily decorated former Navy lieutenant commander who has studied Mandarin Chinese and Russian, served on attack submarines, and traveled across the country giving motivational speeches. But there are some things for which even the Navy doesn't prepare you, and being Sally Jessy Raphael is one of them. The Montel Williams Show serves exactly the same diet of confessionals, horror stories, and believe-it-or-not tales as the rest of daytime's talk shows, and does so with a lot less skill.
Even if you haven't seen Williams in action yet, you know this show: It's the kind where, under a guest's name, the screen reads ''Says He Caught Ex-Wife in Bed with 2 Men,'' or ''Ex-Husband Revealed He Had AIDS on National TV Show,'' or (a recent favorite) ''Mishap Survivor/Lottery Winner.'' It's not belittling the show's suffering souls to say that this sort of trivializing treatment mines their lives for freak-show appeal, and Williams' approach doesn't help. His questions alternate between exploratory surgery (at one point, he urged a rape victim not to forget to tell us about the bedspread that was shoved down her throat), and upbeat, thank-you-for-sharing inspirationalism. Of course he's thanking them; to a TV host, spilling your guts on a talk show represents the highest form of integrity. But when Williams lauds a formerly anorexic, HIV-positive, childhood sexual-abuse victim for helping other women in the same situation, can he really believe what he's saying? Educating the home audience is not at the top of this show's agenda.
With time, Williams' And-then-what-happened? questioning technique may improve. In fairness, he doesn't bully or mock his guests, and he appears to be a genuinely compassionate man. But I won't soon forget the wording of one of his queries: ''When did it hit you that you had been struck by lightning?'' Geraldo Rivera, you have nothing to fear. D+