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After 19 seasons, 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show' is about to end

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ellen DeGeneres's talk show will end its run today after 19 years and more than 3,000 episodes. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says DeGeneres is a pioneering voice with a complicated legacy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Recent episodes leading to "The Ellen DeGeneres Show's" finale have been packed with celebrity goodbyes, but few of them landed with the power of the farewell given by the star that DeGeneres calls her longtime friend and mentor, Oprah Winfrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY: Oh, yeah. You're going to go on. You're going to go on. But you will never, ever have a time like this where you were held in the public's eye and received the joy in such a way. Isn't she going to be so missed?

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: One key to that admiration is DeGeneres' status as a groundbreaking gay star, a performer whose career was nearly derailed after she came out publicly in 1997, only to see her popularity rebound as a successful, openly queer host on daytime TV. Celebrities, including "Saturday Night Live" alum Kate McKinnon, have cited her as an inspiration for openly gay performers. Still, there is a dark cloud over the show's approaching end, namely allegations published by BuzzFeed in the summer of 2020, featuring former employees saying the show was a toxic workplace, culminating in the departure of three top executives and an on-air apology from DeGeneres herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW")

ELLEN DEGENERES: I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.

DEGGANS: DeGeneres's apology rang hollow to some who'd heard rumors her offstage persona was more critical and mean than her sunny onscreen attitude. One lesson DeGeneres seemed to take from Winfrey was that centering her show on a higher purpose could build passionate audiences in daytime television. DeGeneres' show emphasized the phrase be kind to one another, saying it at the end of episodes, creating a line of merchandise with the slogan, featuring charity drives and giveaways, and developing a subscription box filled with items she selected called the Be Kind box. The show's workplace scandal damaged that image to a daytime TV audience which values authenticity. Ratings dropped, and just about a year ago, DeGeneres announced the series would end after this season. Saying she felt some of the criticism she faced during the scandal was unfair and inaccurate, DeGeneres told "Today Show" host Savannah Guthrie last year she now regrets centering her talk show on the slogan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

DEGENERES: I started it because at the time there were a lot of young gay boys being either, you know, killed or bullied into suicide because they were gay. And it was happening a lot. And that's why I started saying, be kind to one another. And then suddenly someone was like, hey, you know what would be good clickbait, is if the be kind lady isn't kind.

DEGGANS: That's quite a journey for a performer who got her early fame as a lighthearted comic who cracked jokes about airline travel and working out, like this bit from a 1992 HBO special.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEGENERES: I lift weights. I do that a lot. I lift weights religiously. I don't lift them every day. I hardly ever do lift them. But when I do, I go, Jesus Christ. They're heavy, hence the name.

DEGGANS: Her sunny comedy eventually earned her a sitcom on ABC. By 1997, DeGeneres was ready to come out as gay in real life and on the show in an episode where a character accidentally activates a public address system while confessing her attraction to a friend, played by Laura Dern.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

DEGENERES: Why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can't I just say the truth, I mean, be who I am? I'm 35 years old. Susan, I'm gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEGENERES: And it wasn't to make a political statement. It wasn't to do anything other than to free myself up from this heaviness that I was carrying around. And I just wanted to be honest.

DEGGANS: That's DeGeneres speaking at Tulane University's 2009 commencement about the coming out episode. The backlash was tough. Religious leaders ran ads in newspapers condemning her, and an unsure entertainment industry recoiled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEGENERES: I lost my career. I got - the show was canceled after six years without even telling me. I read it in the paper. The phone didn't ring for three years.

DEGGANS: DeGeneres pieced her career back together, hosting the Emmy Awards after 9/11 in 2001 and playing Dory in "Finding Nemo." But the talk show, which she started in 2003, allowed her to reintroduce herself to America as the queen of nice, as homophobia in show business was waning. Now she'll exit daytime TV, just as activists fear renewed legal attacks on same-sex marriage, and rising incidents of homophobia and transphobia might threaten the progress she once embodied. It's a bittersweet end for a TV host who seems to have let her meteoric comeback blind her to the qualities that made audiences fall in love with her in the first place.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.