No question about it, I am a card-carrying member of the O generation.
As far back as junior high, I remember coming home from school and flopping on the sofa for some Oprah time. Even back then, before the magazine and the free cars, before Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, the cute decorator guy and the peppy correspondents, before she lost the weight then gained it then lost it and gained it again for good – there was something intensely comforting about the woman who would eventually become the queen of TV. Oprah’s mixture of sentiment, celebrity and social issues was a balm to my adolescent, then twenty- then thirtysomething soul.
She made it seem okay to be every bit as interested in the plight of battered women as the real-life dating habits of the cast of Friends. She made you feel like you were somehow making the world a tiny bit better (“paying it forward,” as she would say) just by watching Eckhart Tolle teach meditation to a studio audience of blissed-out suburban housewives. She managed to do all the daytime-trash-TV standbys – the guy who’s so fat he can’t leave his bed, the compulsive hoarder who hasn’t thrown out a jar in 40 years, all manner of alcoholics, neurotics, crack-heads and kooks – without making you feel like a craven voyeur just for watching. If Oprah seemed curious about something, it was okay to gawk. If Oprah was dismayed (by, say, the beef industry or the truth-stretching memoirist James Frey) a global tsunami of disapproval ensued.
She was, and is, the spiritual leader of contemporary pop culture – the Dalai Lama of Daytime – which is why I feel like what I am about to say feels like a form of sacrilege, especially in the final weeks of her final season. But here’s the truth: I’ll be glad to see the last of Oprah on major network television.
One of the laws of entertainment (if not physics) is that even the biggest, most influential and adaptable celebrities eventually become overexposed. There comes a point in almost every star’s career arc in which the celebrated individual begins to crave attention more than their public is interested in channelling it their way. An unfortunate tipping point occurs, not unlike a shift of power in a romantic relationship: the celebrity starts to seem desperate, needy and frankly a bit sad. They go from dodging the press to being desperate for it. And as everyone knows, desperation is a turnoff. (Madonna anyone?) This is especially true of Oprah.
Since the final season launched last September (with a show in which Oprah awarded an entire hysterical studio audience a free trip to Australia), the Oprah Winfrey farewell tour has been one shameless “special event” after the next. The revelation came this week that she has a long-lost half-sister named Patricia whom her mother gave up for adoption.
She has also indulged in a number of “nostalgia” episodes, including one looking back on her fashion faux pas, as well as an intervention with Octomom. Then there was the interview with Piers Morgan about her suicidal thoughts as a pregnant teenager. What might have historically seemed a coup for Morgan was undercut by the fact that Oprah has never been more visible on the red carpet and in the interview subject's chair. As one TV critic from the Washington Post remarked of the supposed Big Get: “These days, you have to fend Oprah off with a club as she maniacally plugs herself.”
This, of course, is the reason the farewell tour feels uninspired: It’s more of an advance rebranding opportunity. Oprah’s not actually going anywhere at all – she’s just changing platforms in the attempt to expand her empire. Her new venture, the Oprah Winfrey Network, will feature a new show called Oprah’s Next Chapter, which, according to the network statement, will be “a whole new kind of Oprah show” featuring “riveting conversations with the people we all want to hear from, in some very unexpected places.”
Basically, she’s ditching the studio audience and daily slot in favour of a roving nighttime interview show in which she will travel around the world meeting people in fabulous locales. A well-deserved change of scenery – if not change of pace – for the hard-working host. But what’s with all the nostalgia? If anything, the new Oprah era is just beginning. The New York Times reported OWN is already projecting profits in its first year.
In the coming years, the TV world is going to get more Oprah-approved content, not less. So if that’s the case, why the tears?
One of the most compelling things about Oprah has always been her self-contained dignity. Although she was open about her personal life (Gayle, Steadman and the dogs have all appeared regularly on the show) she managed never to cross the line into cringe-inducing over-sharing. Until now.
At a recent conference of critics, Winfrey told the press she sees herself “as a messenger for a message that is greater than myself. And the message is: You can. You can. You can do, and you can be, and you can grow, and it can get better.”
She forgot one: If you're not careful and honest, you can also get worse.