In her second career iteration as a talk-show host, Ellen DeGeneres has been buoyed by generalities. Her show’s success lies in the degree to which it could conceivably be for any viewer; other than an occasional tension thrumming under the show’s studious politeness when DeGeneres is at odds with a guest, the show is sanded down, smilingly vague.
This has, lately, helped give rise to a new way of viewing DeGeneres: As someone who can’t or won’t effectively defend herself against fair criticism, defaulting to a sort of lofty moral outrage that conveniently lacks substance. When, for instance, she was photographed hanging out with George W. Bush, the former president who campaigned against gay rights to win re-election in 2004, she urged her viewers to “be kind to everyone.”
That was last year — before this summer’s torrent of reporting about a toxic culture at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” leading to an internal investigation by WarnerMedia and the firing of three top producers. And it was, perhaps, easier for DeGeneres to slide away from criticism without saying much at all. Today, in her season premiere, DeGeneres’ attempt to clear the air fell painfully flat in part because of her unwillingness to engage with her critics in anything more meaningful than a platitude.
To wit: DeGeneres instructed her audience that “we have made the necessary changes, and today we are starting a new chapter.” While viewers are not entitled to see the show’s org chart, some more transparency about what these changes are might be in order given DeGeneres’ chastened tone. Throughout the monologue, DeGeneres worked to carry across the sense of herself as having learned something — “I am a work in progress,” she told viewers. But this seeming desire to be open about her own growth and areas in which she may fall short as a boss was at war with her tendency as a broadcaster to frame herself as the wellspring of pop wisdom. DeGeneres invoked the 2010 death of Rutgers University Tyler Clementi in order to defend her use of “be kind” as a slogan — a vastly over-the-top demand on the audience’s sympathies. And, in conversation with her D.J., Stephen “tWitch” Boss, DeGeneres declared vaporously, “It’s all love. That’s all that’s real is love. That’s true.” Being kind to others would seem to come cheap if all it takes is insights like these.
It’s likely that for DeGeneres, the topic ends here: Unspecific and studded with glancing apologies for anyone who might have been affected by the climate she oversaw, her address had a feeling of obligation, and of being over it all. Why should she revisit this uncomfortable topic in the future? Even before she had, she had reportedly booked a slate of megastar guests for her first week including Tiffany Haddish, Kerry Washington, Alec Baldwin, and Chrissy Teigen; the internal investigation, as far as her viewers need to know, has been resolved, somehow, and time marches on. DeGeneres made clear that she hopes this new year is her best season ever: It’s hard, given how she cleared the air by simply announcing that the haze of scandal was dismissed, to see why it wouldn’t be like all the others.
But it’s hard not to feel as though an opportunity was missed here. DeGeneres admitted, in the vaguest terms, to often feeling angry, anxious, and impatient — emotions that are close to universally relatable at this moment. Who hasn’t said something, or many things, they regret against the backdrop of these past challenging months? DeGeneres didn’t need to open a vein on television in order to grant viewers a real sense of fellow feeling, but going a bit deeper — being something other than blithely kind to an audience that craves real connection, using her having been momentarily been brought low as the occasion for real insight from a figure who’s endured decades in the public eye — might have been welcome. It might have sparked something infrequently seen on “Ellen”: Not just “kindness,” which is easy to approximate with a gritted-teeth smile, but the challenging and worthwhile work of honesty.