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How Ellen DeGeneres won, and then lost, a generation of viewers

Matt Brennan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — When Ellen DeGeneres launched her daytime talk show, it felt like a flag planted on lunar terrain.

Six years earlier, the comedian and her sitcom character had come out, in tandem, in what remains the single most well-known moment in the history of queer television. But as one learns in Steven Capsuto's indispensable book "Alternate Channels" and "Visible: Out on Television," the extraordinary Apple TV+ docuseries it inspired, that interest soon waned.

As the news cycle moved on, ABC, which aired "Ellen," grew uncomfortable with its handling of the character's coming-out process, which it depicted in sympathetic, radical-for-its-time detail. Almost exactly one year after its namesake appeared on the cover of Time, the series was unceremoniously canceled.

Now, as Karl Rove strived to turn marriage equality into the "wedge issue" that would win President George W. Bush reelection, Ellen's next act seemed equally momentous. With the premiere of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Sept. 8, 2003, she would drop in every afternoon on our mothers and grandmothers — a lesbian in a sweater vest at the suburban coffee klatch table — and offer a daily reminder that queers were fundamentally "normal," no threat worth waging an election campaign over.

She would shimmy through the door Rosie O'Donnell had opened the year before, coming out in the home stretch of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to protest a Florida law banning gay couples from adopting.

DeGeneres would, in short, become perhaps the most famous LGBTQ person in America, Oscar host and rival to Oprah, icon, omnipresence, eminence — and in so doing carry the banner of queer representation that she held aloft on "Ellen" into a new and more hopeful century.

 

And for a time she was. She did. But if you have read this far, you will already know the moral of this story: Nothing lasts forever. Which might just be another way of saying that the century doesn't seem so new, or so hopeful, anymore.

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The final chapter of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which concludes May 26 after nearly 20 years on air, began before this season's farewell tour. Even before Buzzfeed's July 2020 report on allegations of a toxic workplace culture on the show that belied its host's "Be kind" mantra, or a follow-up on sexual misconduct and harassment by executive producers. For DeGeneres' fall from favor runs deeper than poor management; such stories inflicted lasting damage because they rang true. Here was confirmation, after months of public-relations miscalculations, that DeGeneres was as out of touch as she appeared.

Consider Kevin Hart's appearance in January 2019, shortly after past homophobic tweets sunk his chance to host that year's Oscars. The segment performed the rituals of celebrity damage control, with DeGeneres, "as a gay person," accepting Hart's apology and demanding his reinstatement as the ceremony's emcee.

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