Why this daytime TV show is so important
Great moments from the Ellen show
Pre-election Obama dances with Ellen.
Daytime television exists in such a bubble that it’s possible to go through life without paying it much attention. For this reason, you may not realise that The Ellen DeGeneres Show - the upbeat talk show anchored by Ellen DeGeneres - has just clocked its 10th anniversary.
Yes, she of the perpetual dancing and sunny grin is about to begin her tenth season as a talk show host, which is quite a shift considering that for a period in the mid-’00s she was more or less unemployed following her decision to come out (both publicly and as Ellen Morgan, her character on comedy series Ellen) in 1997. When Ellen’s follow-up, The Ellen Show, tanked in 2002, there seemed to be few options for her to explore.
As she told The Hollywood Reporter last week, there was no rush to install her as a daytime fixture when she first floated the idea of a talk show. "They said, 'Who is going to watch a lesbian during the daytime?' You know these are housewives and mothers, right? What does she possibly have in common with them?'"
That DeGeneres has, as an out lesbian in a market that is arguably conservative, managed to not only maintain her profile as a talk show host, but to thrive, is no small feat. But I think there are additional reasons why the success of The Ellen DeGeneres Show is something to celebrate - and they’re probably the reasons why others would decry it.
To wit: it’s nice. More correctly, it’s kind.
When it comes to the entertainment industry these days, I often think of Jerry Maguire sobbing in the living room as he says “We live in a cynical world. A cynical world”; meanness and snark couched as “critique” or commentary is par for the course. The gossip press makes the belittling and bullying of celebrities its bread and butter, and at what price to our own hearts and minds? It may seem hopelessly sentimental to ask that, but it’s a question worth asking.
And if DeGeneres doesn’t expressly ask it, the makeup of her show suggests she knows the answer.
That niceness is highlighted in the THR profile; as president of Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures Hilary Estey McLoughlin puts it, "For an hour each day, Ellen makes you forget your troubles and feel good. She's an antidote for the times."
However, that the show makes a concerted effort to be nice/kind shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed off the bat as a “dumbing down” of television. (After all, there’s arguably nothing “dumber” than the meanness of gossip formats that concern themselves with who’s lost how much “baby weight”.) And if the show allows a moment of happiness or relaxation in an otherwise vexing day, it could be argued that it is doing very important work.
Consider, however, the core audience for the show - indeed, for any daytime talk show. Talk shows regularly provide a lifeline - or, at the very least, a welcome distraction - for the isolated and marginalised. The daytime talk show audience is predominantly female and often under-educated and for the most part always has been. Unsurprisingly, there is much sexism and classism inherent in the dismissal of daytime talk shows as witless entertainment or empty airtime filler.
The legacy of The Oprah Winfrey Show is not, as much as the critics would like to suggest, the apparently deranged consumerist frenzy of Oprah’s Favourite Things (which was almost always, in fact, a chance to change the fortunes of 300 specially selected audience members, such as educators or volunteers), but rather the show’s ability to engage with and enrich the lives of its viewers. I don’t ordinarily quote Wikipedia, but this is a pretty tight summary: “[the show provided] viewers with a positive, spiritually uplifting experience by featuring book clubs, compelling interviews, self-improvement segments, and philanthropic forays into world events.”
Whether or not DeGeneres has reached a level of cultural impact similar to Winfrey’s is a matter of opinion; she is certainly en route to achieving a similar level of earning power. What’s certain is that The Ellen DeGeneres Show appears to be staying put, renewed through 2013-14, with further renewals sure to follow.
Winfrey’s disappearance from the daytime landscape will certainly affect DeGeneres’ ascendancy. Yes, both shows had their moments of dull advertorial or questionable publicity-trail interviews; it’s the nature of the genre. But there is value there, too, a lot of it in DeGeneres honesty within the relative constraints of the talk show format.
As she told THR, “I know that every time I list something that I am, I am potentially alienating a whole group of people. Publicists and managers will encourage you not to say what political party you belong to, what you eat, what you don't eat, who you sleep with and all that [...] People need to have all kinds of examples and heroes on television who stand for something."
Perhaps when the time comes to assess DeGeneres’ legacy, it will turn out not to be one of dancing in the aisles, but one of kindness and honesty.