It’s hard to explain the Oprah phenomenon to people who don’t get it, who haven’t seen the show, and who are more defensive about the whole thing than maybe they should be. Oprah, absolutely, is a bit of a caricature. She did yell, “You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!” She does have strange allegiances to total creeps like John Travolta and Dr. Phil, and she definitely does introduce famous guests to her show by bellowing their names, like “TOMMMMMMM CRUUUUUUUUUUISE.”
That’s the kind of Oprah stuff that non-fans know, and that’s the Oprah that permeates mass popular culture. Still, as Todd VanDer Werff noted earlier this year when he wrote about Oprah’s big Australian trip for TV Club, the whole Oprah experience isn’t for everyone. Especially in this final season, if you haven’t been on the Oprah train for at least a little bit, there’s no place for you now. If her shtick is, well, shticky to you after you’ve given it an honest shot, then that’s not going to change.
A little bit ago, I was talking to someone about Oprah — full disclosure, I started DVRing Oprah for some random reason when I moved to Chicago six years ago and never stopped — and they said, “Oh, I’ve never really watched talk shows, like Oprah.” To me, that made no sense, because what honest-to-goodness, everyday fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show know is that the show really isn’t about that. While it certainly was at some points, the show’s not about skinheads or paternity tests any more. Oprah’s kind of gotten so big that she transcends that, and that’s happened because she’s really damn good at making people feel like they matter. It was one of her final messages in today’s finale, even: All anyone wants is to feel like someone hears them, sees them, and that they matter. That’s what Oprah’s done for people — or at least tried to do — and that’s what she wants her audience to do for others moving forward.
And they’ll do it, too. What Oprah said today will be gospel. To the Oprah faithful, Winfreyism is a religion. (Heck, even Yale professors believe this.) She’s not God, but she’s a pathway to him or her or whatever someone believes. That bellowing is no different than a preacher’s exhortations, and she’s just always there because she’s really trying to get a point across.
It’s fitting, then, that while there was a lot of hoopla surrounding the daytime queen’s big surprise spectacular at The United Center last week — which some people described as being a funeral for someone who’s still alive — Oprah chose to end her 25-year, 4561 show run speaking one on one to her audience for those 60-ish minutes. She wanted to be a teacher and a mentor rather than a big, famous, billionaire who can afford to leave her show because she has her own damn network, private plane, and 9000 houses, or whatever.
Today’s finale, no matter what you think of Oprah, kind of made you forget all that, though — at least a little. It was quiet and meditative. She left the stage with a bow and no goodbye, but rather an “Until we meet again.” There was video of her walking through her clapping staff, giving hugs, and then picking up her dog, Sadie, and saying “We did it!,” before slinking off into what’s presumably her office area. She left the show with dignity and solemnity, and she managed not to cry until at least minute 50.
The show was a little stoic, and maybe a little too solemn. You could almost read Oprah’s inner “be cool, be cool” monologue, and she seemed maybe a little rigid and introspective, but who can blame her? To some, it might have been more like a graduation speech for Oprah, or maybe an example of what she can offer as a big-money corporate motivational speaker. She was fairly obviously trying to inspire viewers, telling people that she had a calling and that everyone’s role is to go out and find theirs and that she might have had an audience of millions, but everyone has their own sphere of influence. She talked about Newton’s third law of motion and about energy. She talked about God, and she talked about how she knows there is grace. It was a sermon, and it was about lifting oneself up, but what’s so wrong with that?
The Daily Beast ran a story this morning about how, “While fans of other celebrities just want to be near their idol, Oprah fans seem to pay homage to their idol by modeling their lives after Oprah's sage advice.” That’s the thing about The Oprah Winfrey Show that non-viewers might not get. Non-Oprah heads don’t get what the big deal is about this whole thing, and that’s okay. That’s not for everyone to understand, I don’t think. Today, Oprah was speaking to her fans and her faithful, and those people, she said, have been “the great love of [her] life.”
That might seem like a total burn to Stedman, but whatever. Oprah feels like she’s been chosen, and whatever you might think of that, think about this first: If one person picked up a book, listened to someone a little better, thought a little more about struggling people worldwide, or planted a tree, then her show did its job. That’s what Oprah would think, probably, and since countless thousands or millions have done those things — far more than just one person — then her job is done here, and she’s okay with that. Now it’s up to her flock to be their own Oprahs, both for themselves and for others. Hopefully 25 years of semi-sappy sloganeering, a-ha moments, and Maya Angelou appearances have been enough to get that message across.