Near the beginning of the final episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, the host found herself sadly, solemnly dancing.
Wiping away tears, DeGeneres stomped up the steps of her stage’s audience section, embracing members of the crowd wearily, mouthing the lyrics “you’ve got the best of my love” — even as it seemed evident from her demeanor that her guests had what was left of it. This was an admirable concession to routine from a host who has made her name through nimble footwork: Redefining herself as a broadcast-ready daytime host after the 1990s sitcom “Ellen” was canceled shortly after her public coming-out, DeGeneres embraced cute rubber-soled jiving as a way to express her desire to seem relatable. But it seemed, too, like a summation of what DeGeneres had been through, and what she is now giving up. For one last time, she was going through the motions.
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DeGeneres’ daytime talk show, which was to air its last episode May 26, cemented the star’s legacy. It turned her from a pop-culture casualty — the woman who came out as a lesbian on her sitcom, and landed the cover of Time, only to see doors shut in her face throughout the industry — into a person with the voltage to meet presidents, host the Oscars twice, and have a presence in American households each day. It also has worked against her. DeGeneres’ dry and cutting ‘90s comic persona may have been a more natural fit than her attempts to channel Oprah in urging her audience to be kind, not least because reporting about the climate on her set suggests kindness has not always been paramount at DeGeneres’ show. DeGeneres’ impact on the LGBTQ rights movement in this country is real; the movement of kindness she attempted to launch in her second act has been facing a new wave of legitimate skepticism.
Of course, there was no hint of that from DeGeneres’ final outing, unless you were carefully monitoring denials. “You are as kind as you seem,” recording artist Pink insisted to DeGeneres; what a normal thing to say. A montage presented by Jennifer Aniston — the first guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” when it launched in 2003 — spotlit not merely the host’s A-list friends (including Michelle Obama, twice) but the people to whom she gave oversized checks, and an outsized platform. Even if DeGeneres lacks her obvious role model Oprah Winfrey’s particular skill for making a moment stick in public memory, she certainly matches Winfrey in terms of her sense of her platform as one that could be used to make change.
DeGeneres used her show to help people out in a material way, and to provide wedding-playlist uplift to viewers at home. She also continued to move things forward in a lower-key manner: Over the course of the finale, DeGeneres acknowledged that, though initially bound from even mentioning her sexuality on her talk show, she was gradually able to discuss her relationship and eventual marriage to Portia de Rossi. But the point-of-view that led ABC to cancel her primetime sitcom decades ago feels, in her talk show’s closing statement, vague and absent. Aniston, Pink, and Billie Eilish (seemingly chosen to punch the point, repeatedly, that the 20-year-old Eilish was a baby when the show launched) were rushed through their interviews, in which they briefly and urgently praised DeGeneres before things moved on.
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has given its host remarkable access to the people who are now her peers in the industry; I was struck by a recent episode of Hulu’s “The Kardashians” that featured a Kardashian-Jenner family-only dinner party with DeGeneres wandering around in the background, uncertainly inserting herself into sisterly conversations preserved on-camera, somewhere between clan member and household ghost.
The Kardashians were regular guests on DeGeneres’ show, using it as a key waystation in their very public lives; they’re not the only celebrities for whom DeGeneres’ we’re-all-friends-here approach has been appealing. (Aniston noted, seemingly somewhat startled by the numbers, that she’d been on the show 20 times in its 19 seasons.) But there are new venues for such friendly chats. Drew Barrymore’s and Kelly Clarkson’s shows, in particular, take the philosophy of amiability and apply to it real perspective and personality. They seem consistently thrilled to be where they are; DeGeneres has too often lately seemed self-impressed for giving her guests her platform.
DeGeneres’ next act remains to be written: She may well have 19 years’ worth of untrammeled comedy built up within her. But her impact on TV remains unclear. It’s apparent that her daily presence on television helped normalize queer people; it feels less certain that there will ever be a show quite like hers again — one that feels quite so flat in its embrace of celebrity as a good in and of itself. Going forward, we will be without Ellen DeGeneres’ perspective — but that’s OK. We didn’t have much of it, other than a general sense that kindness is good, for the past 19 years.
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