Monday, May 23, 2011

Goodbye Oprah

Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show ends this week. The media has been full of stories detailing the guest lists for her final shows, cataloging the last grand gestures and charitable donations. It won't be the last we see of Oprah, of course. She has her own cable network, her own magazine, the book club, and we'll surely see her appear at various major media events in the years to come. She's such a cultural icon that even the irascible David Letterman and the anarchic "South Park" have paid their respects over the years. I haven't watched the show regularly in a very long time, not since her major competitor was "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," but even I can understand the significance of the end of "Oprah."

There are very few television shows that seek to impart their own particular worldview on the audience. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" is a good example, with Stewart providing a very clear point of view about current political and social issues. In the domestic and lifestyle arenas, however, no one is a match for Oprah Winfrey. Not even Martha Stewart, housekeeping guru, could ever hope to compete. Oprah is unique on the talk show circuit, in that she long ago moved beyond mundane household maintenance tips, and the contentious tabloid style of Ricki Lake and Phil Donahue. Instead, Oprah is known for inspirational and aspirational topics, sometimes tastefully highlighting particular social ills or the human side of recent tragedies. There is always plenty of fluff, though. You often see full episodes devoted to promoting new movies or books, and the yearly "My Favorite Things" show was an hour of thinly veiled product placement. Yet, everything always tied back in a certain globally conscious, philanthropic, feel-good vibe aimed at a largely female audience.

The rise of Oprah herself is an irresistible Horatio Alger story, of a poor young woman who suffered many disadvantages, but overcame them all to become a media and entrepreneurial superstar. Her show plays into this narrative by often chronicling her acts of charity and how she chooses to share her good fortune, namely the famous giveaways and wish granting shows that have garnered so much attention. The girls' school that she built in South Africa attracted strong press coverage, creating publicity both for the cause and for Oprah herself. There was even a short-lived ABC prime time show, called "Oprah's Big Give," that sought to turn other people into better philanthropists by providing contestants with funds to be given away. Not all of these projects and charitable contributions have worked out for the best, though, and some of the more elaborate giveaways have garnered criticism, like the infamous show where every member of the studio audience was given a new car.

It's often too easy to forget that Oprah and her show are products of an American media that has both its good and bad side. Oprah's generosity is coupled with her materialism. She promotes literacy and self-betterment, but only reflects very mainstream tastes and ideas. There's her great compassion for the less fortunate, but also her unwillingness to address the deeper issues at their root. She is almost never political, the great exception being her support of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, for which she was criticized in some circles. She has also occasionally been taken advantage of by those who would target her audience, but who do not live up to her standards - James Frey, Jenny McCarthy, and the authors of the self-help book, "The Secret," to name a few. She is a humanitarian, but one whose primary job, we must always remember, is to be entertaining. Oprah may employ journalists, but she isn't one. She may interview important people, but she is not in the habit of asking difficult questions.

So Oprah Winfrey is really more of a cultural bellwether and occasional trendsetter than anything else, and that's certainly not a bad thing. Though her individual acts of philanthropy may sometimes fall flat, she has done a wonderful job of setting a good example for the American public. At her best, Oprah presents ideas of how to better live and contribute to society, shows us possibilities to stoke our ambitions, and gives us examples of extraordinary lives and personalities to take inspiration from. She's the ultimate self-help guru, covering a broad array of topics with the aid of many cohorts who have gone on to front their own programs, like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. Her sizable influence with a certain segment of the viewing public is well documented, and she has done her best to maintain that trust for twenty-five years. And though Oprah has never pushed very hard for social change, sometimes she nudged it along a bit, occasionally featuring guests with alternative lifestyles.

I don't know if there can ever be another Oprah. She was the first to bring down a lot of barriers and set many of the milestones for success. For that, she deserves all the recognition and kudos she's receiving. None of her contemporaries like Ellen Degeneres have the clout or the gravity to fill her shoes. Katie Couric is apparently going to take a shot at a daytime talk show for ABC in the near future. I wish her the best of luck. But am I going to miss Oprah? I don't know. Daytime television has been in an accelerating decline, and it feels like her show has just about run its course too. I'm glad that we had her on television, but the impact of her program has been dulled in recent years by all the other shows she's spawned and influenced. There are self-help, human interest, and philanthropy programs everywhere you look these days. And lately it feels like Oprah has been reduced to a series of stunts and events too keep the energy going in her final season.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Oprah Winfrey, but on the eve of her final shows, I'm mostly relieved for her that she finally gets to retire. After all those crazy finale episodes, and the press scrum, and the endless goodbyes, the poor woman must be exhausted.

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