There were no surprise celebrity guests; no free iPads for the studio audience. Instead, the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired Wednesday afternoon, was an hourlong lecture in which the talk show host touched upon all of her pet themes: living your best life, embracing your self-worth and finding your true passion.
Were it not for the melancholy warbling of Paul Simon on the soundtrack -- singing an updated version of a song he wrote for Winfrey's 10th season -- you might have thought the talk show queen was accepting a good citizenship plaque from the Chamber of Commerce.
After two valedictory episodes taped at the United Center in Chicago, where the likes of Tom Hanks, Beyonce, Madonna, and Maya Angelou came to pay their respects, Winfrey was back on her Harpo Studios set, all by herself, in front of an audience of a few hundred people. But for those who anticipated a more operatic, tear-filled farewell, this final show was an inevitable anticlimax: Winfrey's voice cracked only once, late in the episode, when she told the audience, "You and this show have been the great love of my life."
Problem is, a controlled Oprah isn't necessarily an interesting Oprah -- a point this final episode carried home. Yes, we watched her all these years because she cannily shed light on social issues, from child abuse to substance abuse to depression, that for so many decades had been swept under the rug by the larger popular culture. But the show was at its most electric when its host was thrown off-kilter: Think of her famous on-air takedowns of author James Frey or Hermes President Robert Chavez, both of whom she felt betrayed by, or Tom Cruise's notorious couch-jumping incident, where Winfrey briefly looked afraid for her life.
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For that matter, think of Winfrey's long-running weight struggles, which also kept us glued to our sets for so many seasons. When someone works as hard as Winfrey to maintain an aura of control and authority, we are inevitably drawn deeper into their struggles and stumbles.
The most tedious thing about the final episode, which offered glimpses of Winfrey's longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham, her BFF Gayle King, and the film director Tyler Perry in the studio audience, was the humility Winfrey seemed intent on peddling. She repeatedly referred to this finale as a "love letter" to her fans, and offered up gushing bromides along the lines of: "The energy that I've put into [the show] every day ... has come back to me from all of you in full force."
Sweet as it was, it also felt fundamentally false -- or at least incomplete. The Oprah Winfrey Show has long thrived on its host's self-confidence as a trailblazer and star-maker who knows that when she talks, everybody listens. In retiring her talk show, Winfrey is willingly giving up her position as arguably the most influential cultural arbiter of our time.
Had she been willing to talk frankly about some of this -- Has she had any second thoughts about retiring? How will she deal with leading a less high-profile life? -- maybe her last lecture would have been more compelling.
Instead, The Oprah Winfrey Show concluded after 25 years with the host telling the audience, "I won't say goodbye. I'll just say, 'Until we meet again.'" Her manner was so calm and beatific you wondered if she was just going to float out of the studio. It was a whimper from a titan -- and you couldn't help but wonder if Winfrey forgot to take her own advice. She needed to have a little more faith in her own best self.