A meme, a mogul, a mental health advocate — Oprah Winfrey was all three in 2021, as well as must-see TV.
Since the end of her groundbreaking daytime series, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ in 2011, the former talk-show host and now sui generis personality has co-starred in high-profile films like ‘Selma,’ ‘The Butler’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ But the last 12 months saw a mini-resurgence of Winfrey’s presence in the medium that she made her own.
Back in March, Winfrey hosted ‘Oprah With Meghan and Harry’ (CBS), the interview of the year, in which her audience-surrogate reactions became briefly ubiquitous on social media as a meme. She and Prince Harry followed up two months later with ‘The Me You Can’t See’ (Apple TV Plus), a five-part docuseries about mental health that went on to make its own headlines about the royal’s struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and alcohol dependence.
Winfrey surely hoped to close out 2021 publicly with November’s ‘Adele One Night Only’ (CBS), a combination concert and interview that bolstered both women’s images as relatable gajillionaires.
But later that month, an announcement from Dr. Oz — who began his TV career on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ where he was anointed ‘America’s Doctor’ — declaring his Senate candidacy in Pennsylvania unearthed lingering questions about the less-than-savoury aspects of her long career, such as her lending her platform and perceived trustworthiness to camera-hungry quacks. (Of the Republican physician’s pivot politics, Winfrey, who endorsed former US President Barack Obama in 2008, offered a tepid response on Tuesday: “One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office.”)
But just as notable as Winfrey’s renewed visibility is her embodiment of where television is today — and her simultaneous transcendence of the medium’s current hyper-fragmentation. Winfrey is a prominent warrior in the streaming wars, lending her name, face and credibility to shows on upstart ventures like Apple TV Plus and Discovery Plus. (Winfrey holds a large stake in the latter’s parent company, Discovery, Inc., which controls most of OWN, her namesake cable network.)
But Winfrey’s the rare monocultural figure able to make appointment viewing - a concept that barely exists in the streaming era, outside of roughly two HBO season finales a year — still happen, as proven by the sit-downs with Harry, Meghan and Adele.
Those broadcast-network specials cemented Winfrey as a master interviewer, but many of her loyalists have also probably followed her over to Apple TV Plus, where she makes glossy but thoughtful TV. Less publicised than ‘The Me You Can’t See’ but seemingly no less meaningful to Winfrey is ‘The Oprah Conversation,’ on which she continues flexing her talk-show muscles by sitting down with Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and inauguration poet Amanda Gorman this year, as well as Elliot Page in his first on-camera Q&A since his transition. (Previous guests have included Obama and Dolly Parton.)
Apple TV Plus also hosts ‘Oprah’s Book Club,’ which launched in 2019 with a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates and featured novelists Marilynne Robinson and Richard Powers in 2021. It’s hard not to get the sense that Apple TV Plus is where many of Winfrey’s higher-brow passion projects lie - and where the infinite time slots and seemingly limitless budgets of higher-end streaming sites allow for such niche programming.
But even on these smaller, often more racially themed shows, you can feel Winfrey’s knack for creating a sense of unity and belonging — the quality that for so long set TV apart from other media, and the one television desperately wishes it could continue conjuring. Part of that alchemy comes from Winfrey’s strange, unclassifiable celebrity. Unlike most talk-show hosts today, she’s not a comedian like Ellen DeGeneres or Jimmy Kimmel, though she does enjoy a side gig as a two-time Oscar-nominated actor. Between her book club and her Favorite Things, she’s undeniably an influencer, but seldom called such.
She’s equal parts a star and producer — the kind of power player a younger generation of women in entertainment, like Reese Witherspoon, have made moves toward becoming — but also probably the world’s most huggable billionaire. Winfrey is completely unreachable, and yet, especially in recent years, she’s given us more shows than you might have time for. Her version of stardom has no equivalent. She’s Oprah.
With the Adele and Harry and Meghan specials, Winfrey showed that she still has the goods to bring about intimate moments with famous people. But her smaller-scale series showcase even better Winfrey’s gift for breaking down the boundaries between the elites and the masses and for locating the universal in the specific or even the exceptional. The Harry segments in ‘The Me You Can’t See,’ for example, illustrate this over and over again; as rehearsed as his lines sometimes come across, the Oprah touch ensures that you feel that the prince’s mental health struggles can be shared by anyone.
As Dr. Oz aspires to even greater influence and his fellow Winfrey associate Dr. Phil continues to rack up criticism, it remains to be seen to what extent the viewing public will ding the woman who shared her spotlight with these grasping hucksters.
But there’s no denying that, 10 years after the end of her eponymous show, Winfrey’s fingerprints are all over television today: in the form of daytime junk and critical-darling dramas like ‘Queen Sugar’ and ‘David Makes Man’ (both on OWN and executive produced by her); fueling the streaming wars but appearing on so many different venues to create an aura of network-agnosticism (as if she could be contained in just one home!); burrowing into her personal preoccupations and yet making the kind of television that seizes the news cycle and refuses to let go.
Winfrey may no longer be TV’s biggest star, but with her own form of accessibility and her behind-the-scenes savvy, she’s still Oprah.