That TV event everybody is talking about, Oprah with Meghan and Harry, sits like a marker buoy, designating the place where one period of recent history ends and another begins. What ends is a very troubling period, one that includes our worried recoil from the Trump-era, an era that itself ended with our deep fear and anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now we go forward, propelled in part by an extraordinary twist in the popular culture. And, believe me, apart from the shocking allegations, that interview was steeped in familiar storytelling narratives that are the muscle and sinew of popular dramas, ancient and enduring because they are positive.
There’s a distinguished pedigree behind the tropes and themes of the narrative in that big interview. But first, note the ratings. In a world of ever-expanding streaming services and a deeply fragmented TV landscape, this one event drew viewers in numbers that haven’t been seen for years. With more than 17 million viewers, the CBS prime-time special had more viewers than the audience for September’s Emmy Awards and the recent Golden Globes combined. Oh my heavens, the watercooler TV event is back. In Canada, it drew an audience of 2.8 million, more than double what an NHL game draws these days.
So, thanks Meghan and Harry for reviving communal, must-see TV and sticking with old-fashioned storytelling, whether by design or accident. The story templates used are many. Let’s assess.
We had palace intrigue, a narrative older than Shakespeare, used by him and one that goes back to the story in Oedipus Rex. For a while there, the “palace intrigue” trope was owned by the Trump administration.
Who among us does not recall that on his first day as White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci said, “I think what you’d find is that there’s a lot less palace intrigue than is getting reported about. We all genuinely like each other.” He was gone 10 days later, done in by palace intriguers.
And an aside here – the big celebrity TV interview has declined as a major event. It’s been 10 years since Barbara Walters told the Kardashian clan: “You don’t act, you don’t sing, you don’t dance. You don’t have any, forgive me, any talent.” The most recent OMG TV interview was Gayle King talking to R. Kelly in 2019 and that was as repulsive as it was best forgotten. In recent years, the big “get” for TV interviews has been figures who were part of the Trump spectacle. A sit-down with James Comey was more sensational than any chat with any movie star.
Back to Harry and Meghan. The “rebellious princess” is its own storytelling arena – the Audrey Hepburn character in Roman Holiday – and we also got the woman-in-jeopardy motif, an old TV movie theme that is a variation on the damsel-in-distress concept, which is older than dirt. Wide-eyed innocent Meghan enters a world that is much darker than she ever realized. She feels trapped, in danger and, among other things, depression ensues. Metaphorically she’s trapped in a dungeon and inside a clan known for putting people in dungeons.
Followed by fear for her child. Here we get the mama-bear motif. As we all know, bears are actually passive unless provoked and the ultimate provocation is someone getting between a mother bear and her cub. Endanger her child and she will destroy you. Think Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens, enraged and attacking the monster who threatens the child Newt.
Of course, there’s a positive ending, thematically, in that Meghan finally finds happiness with her prince. Meghan saved Harry, he saved her, and there, right there, the fairy tale has a happy ending. Oprah nudged that ending forward, but it didn’t take much doing.
There are other motifs, too: moving west to California in pursuit of the American Dream in the sunshine and seeking opportunity and authenticity there. Harry and Meghan are not exactly the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, but there was a hint of the back-to-basics renewal theme in that chicken-coop scene.
Thanks again Harry and Meghan for restoring traditional storytelling structure and patterns. You helped us all move on from the Trump-era and you remind us that sunny days are ahead while we slowly escape from COVID-19 prison just as you escaped from that sinister cabal in Britain. CBS says thanks for bringing back must-see TV with your bag of old-timey themes.
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