“Where will you be?”
If you’ve been anywhere near a television over the past few days, you’ve likely seen that question posed in ads trumpeting Wednesday’s final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
At first, it seems like an odd question to be asking of the top-secret episode’s potential viewers, given that the phrase is more closely associated with tragedy than the kind of celebration that Winfrey and her hyper-loyal producers are surely going for with the long-awaited finale.
Certainly, no television star has ever before had the audacity to ask something like “Where will you be?” in advance of her own farewell.
But Oprah knows that a good chunk of her many millions of fans see her departure from daily syndication after 25 seasons and more than 4,500 programs as a significant tragedy.
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And let’s face it, we’ll all be there. Whether we tune in to the actual program as it airs, save it for later viewing on our DVR, or just follow the news via the snarky comments of our friends on Twitter, this is too massive a cultural moment to ignore completely -- even for non-converts like me.
I will gladly admit to having seen Winfrey's show exactly twice. Her riveting 1993 interview with Michael Jackson and her ungracious 2006 grilling of novelist James Frey felt like required viewing.
My third will be Wednesday. I'll watch with a mix of sheer curiosity about how she’ll choose to say goodbye and with grudging respect for what she’s managed to accomplish over the years.
When Winfrey’s show began in 1986, it appeared to be a virtual clone of the groundbreaking talk show it would essentially replace -- the cause-y and often sensationalistic “The Phil Donahue Show.”
But she didn’t last 25 years in the tough daytime talk show arena and become a billionaire through imitation. She overcame a rocky start, during which her program wasn’t a hair less sensationalistic than a throng of competitors that sprung up in the 1990s -- embarrassing stuff from the likes of Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones.
But at some point in the mid-1990s, Oprah kicked it into a higher gear and never looked back.
The power and wealth she amassed put her in a unique position to play kingmaker, for better or for worse.
She cultivated and anointed new daytime stars, such as Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.
Through Oprah's Book Club, she single-handedly made the careers and bank accounts of authors flourish.
Sure, all too often the titles she selected were treacly, self-help nonsense like "The Secret," when she could have been using her power to promote writers who really deserved it. But she did that at times as well -- just ask Jonathan Franzen.
And she helped get Obama elected in 2008.
She owes all of these things to her biggest asset, and the thing that set “The Oprah Winfrey Show” apart from its largely soulless peers: heart.
This became evident to me when my Mom, a high school English teacher living in Grand Rapids, Mich., got on board circa 1994. By then, Oprah had already left her indelible mark, but she had yet to become a brand.
My mom, a gregarious, perpetually overweight woman who has survived two bouts with breast cancer, took to Oprah quickly and completely after getting hooked during recovery.
When she returned to work, she would gun it home after school, doing 70 mph through residential neighborhoods because she didn’t know how to program her primitive VCR and never wanted to miss the start of the show.
“There will be a huge void in my afternoons now,” she told me Tuesday, after blubbering through Oprah’s penultimate show.
I always figured that Oprah fans like her were part of some strange cult, the kind that persuades its members to buy the same things, to eat the same things and to believe that Dr. Phil is worth listening to.
So I was surprised when my Mom followed up our call with an email.
She pointed out Oprah’s many good qualities -- her donations to charity, her dedication to helping people in need, her interest in propping up books. But my Mom also revealed that she’s having second thoughts about what the show meant to her.
“I’m beginning to think that I really didn’t like that much about Oprah’s shows,” she wrote. “I would say that maybe two a week I would like. I liked the one where she examined poverty in America -- that was one of the best shows I have seen. It had a segment on a little town near Chicago where there was no running water.
"I liked the show about her establishing the school in South Africa. I liked the Christmas show where she gave out lots of shoes to poor African kids. That was a heartbreaker."
“But I couldn’t stand the maudlin quality of a lot of her shows,” she continued. “And her ‘Favorite Things’ shows! I don’t understand why a bunch of women in those audiences would faint and scream at being given a watch or whatever else Oprah was handing out. I watched those shows because I was just amazed at the reactions of those ladies.”
Even with her mixed emotions about the end of Oprah's run, my mom, now 68 and healthy as an ox, will no doubt have a similar, hysterical reaction as "those ladies" on Wednesday when she watches her favorite television star exit the stage.
Many of us will, even if it happens vicariously.