The best talk show hosts are made into stars by the medium. To wit: Rosie O’Donnell was a well-known comic and actor but hardly the dynamo she eventually became when she began her daily show. She reinvented the medium that had, before her, been dominated by former local news anchor Oprah Winfrey. Both these stars did not bring to bear huge amounts of persona that was already known to the audience, so they had to work to carry across an idea of themself with each episode and segment. At their best, you walked away from their shows knowing O’Donnell and Winfrey in a way you might not otherwise have, before.
Drew Barrymore, a newly-minted talk show host with her “Drew Barrymore Show” carried in daytime by CBS stations, has less of herself to introduce, and, more crucially, less apparent desire to do so. Barrymore has been famous for decades, a Hollywood legacy admission whose talent, charm, and breezy approach to publicity have justly kept her in the public eye since her “E.T.” days. Her show’s opening credits include a list of all she’s gotten up to both in her films (“You’ve seen me… discover extraterrestrials,” onscreen text shouts at the audience in a sans-serif yellow familiar from SoulCycle’s branding) and outside them (we’ve also seen her “flash a few hosts,” “get in trouble,” and “learn to be a mother”). But these allusions to a somewhat difficult early life as well as to a tendency, earlier in her career, towards chaos are as much Drew as we get.
That’s not to say the show isn’t subsumed with her image. Barrymore has, perhaps since the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise, been known for a sort of ebullient, eager kookiness: Here, that’s flattened a bit into a sunniness that begins to glare, lacking even the slight, tense coolness that present-day talk standard-bearer Ellen DeGeneres brings to her onscreen life between dances. Barrymore opens episodes with monologues about her life that seem to reveal more than they actually do, alluding to the challenges and joys of parenthood while ending on a lesson. She takes light, uninvasive questions from a virtual audience of waving fans beamed in from their homes, a concession to the COVID era that conveniently cedes control of the space to a very in-control star.
And she does celebrity interviews that, in their first week, usually lacked a peg beyond Barrymore’s friendship or admiration for her guest. (Her introduction to Reese Witherspoon was as follows: “There really are no words that I have for our next guest, except to say that she’s not just a guest, but she’s a woman who is showing up for a friend — me.”) In each, Barrymore’s fellow-feeling with movie stars (her peers) ensured things would not get much deeper than a mutual admiration society. The opening-day “Charlie’s Angels” reunion, lacking the moderating force of someone outside this tripartite friendship, left viewers on the outside. The conversation with Witherspoon, for instance, never really transcended a sort of complimentary back-and-forth about how each truly loves the other; moments where the pair edged up to actually discussing their lives, like a vacation they took together to Mexico, fell away. An interview with Charlize Theron came closer to a sort of truth, as the pair discussed their respective families’ experiences of alcoholism. It’s not even the disclosure itself that mattered so much as the sense that Theron and Barrymore both were there to talk about something.
Barrymore’s show is squarely in her comfort zone, and as such is in the comfort zone of any celebrity; it’s so soft and unthreatening, though, as to often make us feel we know subjects and interviewer both less well when the interview is done. We hardly need a Mike Wallace-style expose on the stars Barrymore books; that’d be weird in daytime, and it’s not what viewers look to Barrymore for. But — speaking as a Barrymore fan who was excited to see her in conversation — there is as yet untapped potential for her to dig deeper, to show us more of what she really believes or finds important. “Drew’s News,” a segment at the top of the show meant to inspire and be light, is a good example: It’s often about internet dross, like the world’s largest chocolate fountain or a debate about where on its neck a giraffe would wear a bow tie. (Yes, really.)
But also on the show, Barrymore has placed the spotlight on, for instance, the Black author and illustrator of a children’s book she seemed to meaningfully love or a campaign for white women to share their platforms with Black women. These were moments that were unexpected, spoke to the moment in a more direct way than simply providing escapism, and — most urgently — seemed to provoke something more meaningful from Barrymore than effusiveness. They got at the idea of positive uplift by doing it rather than insisting on it. Barrymore’s show has the ability to be upbeat and still about something; it just, too often, defaults to the flat, broad approach of a celebrity who has fought hard, after a childhood exposed to the media’s glare, to keep some part of herself from the public. There can be a middle approach here, one that ditches the giraffes in bow ties and the absolutely most obsequious of the star-on-star chats, and that keeps a smile on its face while acknowledging that sometimes, it’s okay for relentless positivity to, well, relent. That’s when we get the moments of humanity behind the smile, the ones that make stars stars, or keep them there.