'The Ellen DeGeneres Show' — The long, slow and sad decline of the series

Ellen DeGeneres.
(Image credit: Flickr)

After months of rumors, it was announced that Ellen DeGenres would be bringing her popular daytime talk show to an end. After 19 seasons, DeGeneres told The Hollywood Reporter that she planned to step down because "as great as this show is, and as fun as it is, it’s just not a challenge anymore." It's truly the end of an era for one of the most popular and recognizable series in modern American TV history. It's also, alas, the inevitable conclusion to the past year of drama that has engulfed both DeGeneres and the series that revived her career.

DeGeneres's previously bulletproof public pe, DeGeneres admits that she had considered ending her show on season 16 but was coaxed into signing on for three more years. This hesitation to keep doing the series has been evident for years, even to casual viewers. Frankly, DeGeneres hasn’t seemed particularly excited about her work for quite some time. Take a gander at any clip from the past four or five years of n and the dismissal of key executives. DeGeneres later issued an on-air apology with the premiere of season 18, an episode that brought in Ellen's highest premiere ratings in years. Audiences, however, didn't stick around after that, and viewership quickly tumbled. If DeGeneres had been hoping to end things on a bang, it seemed that even some of her ardent fans weren’t all that enthused with what she was offering.

In the interview with The Hollywood Reporter, DeGeneres admis that she had considered ending her show on season 16 but was coaxed into signing on for three more years. This hesitation to keep doing the series has been evident for years, even to casual viewers. Frankly, DeGeneres hasn’t seemed particularly excited about her work for quite some time. Take a gander at any clip from the past four or five years of The Ellen DeGeneres Show and it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that Ellen herself doesn’t want to be there. She seems tired, unmotivated, and even disdainful at times. Her audience screams for her and dances and radiates a kind of enthusiasm that DeGeneres just doesn’t anymore. It’s a shame because it wasn’t always like this.

When Ellen started in 2003, DeGeneres was in a tough place as a comedian. She had been a bona fide megastar in the '90s with her sitcom and stand-up routines. Johnny Carson loved her. She hosted awards ceremonies. She turned up in big movies and starred in an Epcot ride alongside Bill Nye. What made DeGeneres so appealing was her sharp observational humor and natural warmth, like she was a friend telling you weird jokes about her day. DeGeneres was incredibly easy to love, and that was before she made history. In 1997, at the height of her sitcom's popularity, DeGeneres came out as gay, as did her character on TV. It instantly became iconic and made DeGeneres an LGBTQ+ icon at a time where representation on network TV was thin on the ground. As has been extensively noted, DeGeneres faced immense homophobic pushback, which culminated in advertising boycotts of her sitcom and its eventual cancellation. DeGeneres admitted that she essentially didn't work for a couple of years afterward and came close to going broke as a result.

Returning with a talk show, a format that freed her from playing a character and being herself, allowed DeGeneres to make her glorious comeback. Watch early episodes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show and you’ll completely understand why she became a megastar. She’s immensely appealing and infectiously joyful. That party feel, so openly inviting and the right side of frivolous, stood in sharp contrast to the approach of the undisputed queen of the daytime talk show, Oprah Winfrey. Where she tackled tricky topics and offered a kind of aspirational quality, encouraging her viewers to live their best lives, DeGeneres got people on their feet to dance and have their best life right there and then. There’s a case to be made that Ellen is one of that generation’s most influential shows. Jimmy Fallon and the modern ensemble of late-night bro hosts definitely owe her a debt of gratitude.

DeGeneres initially defined herself as a relatable and familiarly friendly figure. Relatability is a tricky quality, one that is often reliant on endless moving of the goalposts and contradictory ideas of what is and isn’t applicable. It doesn’t take much for people to grumble that you’ve changed or aren’t as nice as you used to be, and typically that shift can happen for reasons as simple as someone getting political or not smiling as often as they once did. DeGeneres is somewhat different because her entire multi-million-dollar brand was built on this notion of kindness and niceness that had long since dissipated from her show. Even if you weren’t aware of the endless industry rumors about her mean streak, you could see that divide between message and reality on-air. The disconnect between Ellen shilling kindness-focused subscription boxes and her giddily pranking her audience members in increasingly cruel ways was sometimes baffling.

It bled through to her increasingly agonizing celebrity interviews, from goading Mariah Carey into drinking champagne to see if she was really pregnant at the time (Carey was pregnant but later miscarried) to claiming that Hasan Minhaj was mispronouncing his own name. One of the reasons that her interview with Dakota Johnson went viral was because so many people felt genuine relief to see a celebrity clap back at DeGeneres’s tactics.  When DeGeneres said to Johnson “You knew I liked you” and Johnson stayed silent in response, it spoke volumes to the problem with the disintegrating Ellen brand. How can you preach kindness and commodify that concept when you don’t seem to like anyone or treat them accordingly? DeGeneres has recently tried to blame the negative coverage of her and her show on misogynistic media, a move that seems intensely ignorant given the magnitude of the accusations made by former staff members.

It remains to be seen how The Ellen DeGeneres Show will conclude. If she wants to truly end on a high note — which may be difficult given everything that’s preceded this moment — then she could go the Oprah route and make Season 19 a lavish, big-budget, high-stakes celebration. Vacations for all! The most famous celebrity interviews! Big surprises all round! Whatever happens, DeGeneres isn’t going anywhere. She’s producing multiple shows across various networks and streaming services and even with a dented public image she can still command immense loyalty among her core audience. She’s made her mark, but it still feels like her greatest achievement is ending on a low note.

Kayleigh Donaldson

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.