There were no guests on the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” There was, for that matter, no chair, nor a couch or any other piece of comfy furniture. There was only Oprah herself, standing and addressing her audience.
Of course that’s all there was. Because this wasn’t a talk show farewell episode, not really. Oprah got her big goodbye in the star-studded United Center episodes that aired earlier this week.
No, this was an occasion for which a guest, or the possibility of sitting, seemed inappropriate.
This was a sermon – the last sermon Oprah will ever deliver from the lofty, powerful pulpit of the talk show she hosted for 25 years.
Sure, she has her own cable channel (called, conveniently, OWN) to go to, but its ratings are struggling in a world where people would rather watch sports or “Jersey Shore” or “The Little Couple” than the various inspirational shows Oprah and her team have assembled. Oprah recently admitted in an interview that, in hindsight, she probably should have waited til the end of the talk show to launch OWN – that perhaps if it had become the only place on TV you could find Oprah-related content, and if it had launched right after the hype of her final episodes, it might be doing better.
OWN may grow now that it’s Oprah’s only home, but it’s hard to imagine it ever having the reach of the syndicated talk show, which was born in an age where most people got single-digit channels on their TV, when there was no cable or internet or any of the other tightly-marketed distractions we have. There will never be another Oprah because the marketplace is too fractured – even if Oprah herself were to recognize a year or two from now that trading in the show for the cable channel was a horrible mistake, it’s hard for her to imagine rebuilding her audience to the size it was for this farewell season.
And I imagine she knew that, which is why the final show turned into one long testimony about the gospels of the Church of Oprah.
I don’t say that to be derisive. Given where she came from, given the things she went through growing up, and given who she was in 1986, it is remarkable what Oprah has accomplished in these 25 years – not only in terms of advancing her own career and celebrity, but in accomplishing good things for others. The final show featured many clips from past shows, including a woman getting a serious medical condition diagnosed after watching it discussed on an Oprah episode, as well as an episode from earlier this season in which 200 adult men who were sexually abused as children came forward to help “lift the veil of shame” surrounding such molestation.
No, Oprah’s is a true, amazing American story. And yet the very nature of it, and the work that she did, began to take on the air of a cult of personality – if not an actual cult – as the years went on and the show and Oprah’s fame grew bigger and bigger.
The angry, trash confrontations between people just eager to be on TV (Jerry Springer before Jerry Springer) went away a long time ago, and Oprah seemed chastened to show a clip from that era in the finale. Instead, the show became about bettering oneself – about each person in the audience tapping into their inner Oprah, to the extent she or he was capable. (One of the many, many, many sections of the finale sermon – which was like a longer, better-organized version of the infamous filibuster Oprah delivered back at the TV critics press tour in January – had Oprah encouraging people to find a “calling” like she had, while acknowledging, “You have to make a living, I understand that,” and that most people would not be as lucky as she to make their calling into their career.)
And so Oprah came out for what she dubbed “our last class on this stage,” and later a “love letter” to all her viewers, but which at the same time was a celebration of her own innate Oprah-ness: Find your light! You’re responsible for the energy you create for yourself! We often block our own blessings!
She invoked God several times – “the source, the force of all there is” – and, in fact, closed her final show by saying, “To God the glory.” But even the parts that weren’t explicitly about religion had a spiritual undertone. Oprah believes in God, but she also believes in herself, and in her ability to improve the many things that went wrong in her earlier life. “Don’t wait for somebody else to fix you,” she intoned, “to save you, to complete you. ‘Jerry Maguire’ was just a movie.”
And Tom Cruise was one of the stranger guests she ever had on the show, but that’s a sermon for another holiday. This was Oprah’s Last Day, and she had wisdom she very clearly wanted to impart.
How much you took of that wisdom no doubt depended on how much you watched, and cared about, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” over this last quarter-century. To an Oprah non-believer, I imagine much of this last hour played like the self-important ramblings of a complete egomaniac. To a member of the faithful, it may have been a blessing. To an agnostic like me, there were moments of power and moments of absolute self-aggrandizement. (Showing the clip of Iyanla Vanzant’s awkward return to the show earlier this season was one of the latter, I felt.)
But no matter how much you believed in her, Oprah was there for 25 years, and she’ll still exist in the cable afterlife of OWN. And we’ll get to see how cramped a celestial being such as Oprah feels appearing to a much smaller flock.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org