Twenty-five years ago, many expected "The Oprah Winfrey Show" would be big. No one anticipated Planet Oprah. Over a quarter century, "Oprah" — which airs its final episode Wednesday — and Oprah became worldwide phenomena that breached lives, cultures and — most unexpectedly — whole industries. But there have been other talk shows and other hosts. What made this one so outrageously different?
Where to begin? With Winfrey herself, of course. The show and Winfrey were one, as if a moving, talking image on someone's TV could somehow be turned into flesh and blood.
She was all there, right there, fully present on the screen every day for 25 years, and absolutely relentless in conveying the sheer force of her humanness: the appetites, fears, insecurities, joys and triumphs, often refracted even further through the battles with body weight or dress size. Her past became present, and a bandage ripped from a still-raw wound, with stories about childhood poverty and abuse, adolescent promiscuity and an unplanned pregnancy. Winfrey's life was her material, and the subject she knew best.
While she pored obsessively over this life, the lessons became apparent to fans who embraced them as well. The universe was not indifferent but had a plan for her, and for them. No one had ever heard Johnny Carson talk about the universe's plan. But Johnny was detached, cool and ironic. Oprah — and "Oprah" — were not.
As a blend of inspiration and aspiration, her show was something that had never been seen on daytime TV. Here was an African-American woman from the Jim Crow South who had been raised in poverty and became one of the world's wealthiest people. Winfrey's singular "aha" moment — repeated mantra-like through the years -- was that life was about redemption, salvation and (most of all) personal fulfillment.
But if "Oprah" occasionally took on the aura of an old-time revival meeting, it also was yoked to a distinctly secular and even consumerist worldview. "Thin" was usually better than "fat." Fashion mattered, really mattered. And things, especially nice, expensive things, were good. "EVERYBODY GETS A CAR," she bellowed repeatedly over the hysterical din of an adoring studio audience in one of the most famous moments in TV history. In another time or place, she could have just as easily been saying, "Everybody gets to heaven," but in that wild, ecstatic, made-for-TV moment, a free new car seemed much better.
In fact, had Oprah Winfrey been just another Elmer Gantry in pumps, her show would have disappeared years ago. Other TV preachers had come and gone. She was not a preacher, but a BFF, who cared deeply -- boy, did she care. No one on TV -- maybe with the exception of Mr. Rogers — had ever seemed to care so much. When she cried hot tears, then looked deep into the camera, it was like she was looking right into viewers' souls. Then Winfrey would invariably say something absolutely perfect to the moment, such as these Oprahisms from various shows: "If there is one message, it is that you are not alone. . . . To be embraced, and feel part of other people's lives . . . I don't know of another human being who has appreciated [this] more than I have. . . . I preach gratitude . . . it changes the way you see the world . . . the great lesson I have learned in all these years is that every person matters."
That's right. You matter. You, sitting there in the solitude of your living room trying to navigate life. You are hearing from your Best Friend Forever that you matter. And you believed her. What's more, she truly seemed to believe what she was saying, too.
It was quite a performance over 25 years, one that changed millions of lives, altered the culture, made her a billionaire and even landed her a cable network cast in her own image.
Verne Gay is a writer for Newsday