Well, the world didn’t end as predicted last Saturday, and doubtless millions of Oprah Winfrey fans are hoping for a similar reprieve today as the woman who has ruled the afternoon for 25 years signs off from her daily broadcast for the last time (“What, did I say May 25th? I meant October 25th!”).
Alas, that won’t happen. The Sun Queen will indeed set, leaving behind a programming void around which will continue to orbit, at least for now, her personally created Solar System—Dr. Phil (the large gas planet), Rachel Ray (the boiling water planet) and Dr. Oz (the Planet Uranus). Also, recent observations from Mt. Palomar indicate an outlying Oprah object called Nate Berkus, but he’s more of a rumor than an actual TV show.
Please don’t misunderstand—you can’t help but be impressed with Oprah’s accomplishments. But really, hasn’t this long goodbye been more than a little, well, creepy? Take the current cover of O, The Oprah Magazine,that glossy monthly monument to megalomania. There’s Oprah, in all her glory, with the words “Thank You!” plastered across the picture. Now, ostensibly that “thank you” is to you and all your friends who have so faithfully poured your hard-earned dollars and increasingly scarce time into making Oprah the most wealthy and powerful woman in America.
But you know and I know, and I’m pretty sure Oprah knows, that the “Thank You” is really meant to convey our heartfelt expression of appreciation to Oprah for her wisdom, her generosity, her very Oprah-ness (and should you doubt that, then consider: Who else would make you pay $4.50 for your own thank-you card?).
It’s perhaps instructive to go back a couple of decades, to the days when Oprah was but a mere mortal, walking the Terrestrial Talk Show Earth with the likes of Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, and Sally Jessie Raphael.
Maybe by accident, more likely through shrewd calculus, Oprah decided to set herself apart from the pack by focusing not on wayward boyfriends and hookers who moonlight as marriage counselors, but on loftier subjects, like building solid personal relationships (even though she could never bring herself to wed the poor chump who has been cuffed to her all these years) or living a healthier lifestyle (even though her own weight has risen and plunged more often than the observation deck elevator at the Sears Tower).
Viewers gobbled up the new format, and Oprah, like Harpo, was off to a Day at the Races. She gave her audience lavish gifts. She made very public donations to schools and charities. But as Oprah became TV’s clearinghouse for virtue and generosity, an uneasy sense of moral superiority seemed to set in. Somewhere along the way, Oprah started telling me how to think about the social issues that were important to her, basking in her own pure motivations while implicitly questioning mine when I dared to harbor a differing position. At least, that’s how I felt whenever I tuned in (By accident, of course. Men were frequent guests on Oprah, but a typical male viewer would soon turn away uneasily, as if he’d somehow wandered into the ladies locker room and they were all talking about him).
Most of all, The Oprah Winfrey Show was a daily invitation to love Oprah. The star, who elevated Barbara Walters’ brand of confessional journalism to a religion, comes close to admitting as much in an interview in her own magazine: “I genuinely feel appreciated and loved by this audience that has grown up with me. Which, for me, is a huge, huge, huge accomplishment. Because I grew up feeling the opposite of that. Feeling a void, as a little girl, feeling that really nobody loved me.” It’s difficult to read those words and feel, rather than exhilaration, a deep sadness.
Parallels are being drawn between Oprah’s departure and that of Johnny Carson, who quit his nightly show, coincidentally, 18 years ago this week. I’m not really buying it. Johnny, for one thing, tucked us in each night for more than 30 years—Oprah reigned over nap time. Plus, perhaps Carson’s greatest talent as a host was his uncanny ability to make guests feel like the show was about them—a skill which Oprah, whose appetite for the spotlight at times seems insatiable to the point of desperation, either never mastered or never had any real interest in.
Carson, of course, had more than his share of dysfunctional personality quirks—and for all we know, Oprah may well be the real deal, the exquisite balance of soulful humanitarian and brilliant entrepreneur she sets herself up to be.
To be sure, Oprah has given more money to charities around the world than virtually any celebrity you can name. We know this because Oprah’s publicity machine never seems to let a donated penny go unreported. Will Oprah’s generosity continue long after she’s out of the spotlight (if such a day ever comes) and no longer drawing endless attention to her largess? I hope so. It would be nice to know she really deserves that tiara of secular sainthood she so desperately seeks. But until then, like Napoleon reportedly seizing his crown from the Pope and placing it on his own head, Oprah is merely orchestrating her own coronation.
Uneasy lies the crown, especially when you’ve paid for it yourself.