Two weeks ago on Today, Rosie O'Donnell announced that she will end her daily talk show when her contract expires in 2002. In the Entertainment States of America, a star may graduate to a movie career, the network may cancel her show, her option may not be picked up, she may be murdered by a stalker at Spago between seasons, but she does not quit television. It is downright un-American.
Rosie, in short, is planning career suicide, yet she doesn't seem to care. She has credible reasons for wanting to escape the grind of The Rosie O'Donnell Show. She hates fans intruding on her and her kids. She just struck a deal to take over McCall's—that dreariest of women's mags—and relaunch it this spring as Rosie's McCall's. (Say that three times quickly.) And she wants to spend more time on her causes: adoption, breast cancer awareness, Broadway, and "my annoying Democratic politics." (She seems to favor gun control, Hillary Clinton, and the homeless.)
But the principal reason Rosie seems unbothered by abandoning her show is that she is suffering from The Oprah Delusion. This is the belief that she, like Oprah or Martha Stewart, transcends mere television, that she is a free-standing American institution, and that millions of acolytes will revere her no matter what she does. (Roseanne Barr once suffered from The Oprah Delusion. Kathie Lee Gifford has now recovered from her case after several months of shock therapy .)
It's understandable that Rosie has this hallucination. She was supposed to be the Great White Oprah. When the stand-up comic and character actress launched her talk show in 1996, viewers swooned at the "Queen of Nice." The media slurped over Rosie. She was the antidote to the toxic spew of Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and other daytime talk hustlers.
In a talk-show universe of teen-age hookers and mother-son incest, Rosie returned to the old-time happy chat of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. Rosie's mom died when she was 10, and her dad had ignored her: Television had raised her, and she reciprocated by making it her life and inspiration. Celebrities enthralled her. All she wanted to do was worship them, touch them, listen to them prattle. And that's what she did.
Rosie proved to have a different relationship with her viewers than most of her colleagues. Martha Stewart is an impossible ideal. Springer is a cruel, distant observer. But Rosie was a stand-in for her fans. She was the gaga teenybopper who couldn't believe that she—a chunky girl from Long Island—was on stage with Donnie Osmond!!!! Donnie Osmond!!!! She made sycophancy cool, and she was funny doing it. (Rosie likes to say she creates a "safe zone" for stars, a claim that is laughable in its celeb-centrism. Does she think celebrities are hunted down and killed like rats in the rest of the country? Isn't the whole nation a "safe zone" for celebrities?)
Rosie's enthusiasm was genuine and infectious. Her ratings rocketed up. Middle-aged women watched by the millions. Oprah felt the threat. The daytime sleazeballs cringed. Syndicators rushed other saccharine suck-ups to the air: Howie Mandel got a softball talk show, so did Martin Short. Even Roseanne was supposed to adopt Rosie's sweet style, but—kudos to her—couldn't fake it.
The Rosie moment didn't endure, of course. The other nice talk shows stank. Marc Berman, Mediaweek.com's TV analyst, says a legal trend quickly supplanted the niceness one. When Judge Judy hit huge, programmers flooded daytime with court shows, 10 of them at last count. Rosie's ratings slipped and have now plunged. She's down 17 percent this year, and down a third since three years ago. She has dropped from a solid third-place—behind Oprah and Springer—to fifth. Eight million people watch Oprah every day; only 4-and-a-half million see Rosie.
Rosie's decline stems partly from the degradation of its format. It has become a kids show. Rosie adores children—probably because she herself is a wisecracking, crush-heavy 12-year-old. She wants the show to be kid-friendly, but it has gone too far. She has a cartoon intro and a set that looks like a playground. She hands out toys to the audience. She books Tiger Beat heartthrobs. She endlessly natters about her own kids. As an adult, I am actually embarrassed to watch it.
(She also constantly pitches her causes: Rosie Adoptions, her adoption quasi-agency; "Freshly Squeezed," her mammogram campaign; Toys for Tots; cystic fibrosis … All worthy, all bad television.)
But there is a more fundamental weakness of Rosie as a show and Rosie as a star. When Rosie started, Rosie was a minor celebrity. The show's joy was stargazing with her. Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Susan Dey—it floored her to see them, and that was her appeal. But she has become as big a name as her guests. All her friends are now TV stars, movie directors, and platinum-album singers. She still idolizes celebrities, but a falseness pervades her manner now. She goes weak-kneed over B-list guests. She's lying.
Over the years, she has revealed an even more profound flaw. In the beginning, critics and audiences were so charmed by Rosie's honest enthusiasm that they overlooked a basic fact: She celebrates crap. She has an incredibly narrow view of the universe: popular television, Broadway schlock, mainstream movies, sappy pop balladeers. The acme of Culture, in Rosie's world, would be a Ricky Martin/Barbra Streisand duet of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" at Radio City Music Hall for the Celine Dion NBC Christmas special. Her brain is a landfill of junk culture, and she uses her show to promote the worst of it. David Letterman and Jay Leno keep some ironic distance from the culture they promote. Rosie doesn't. Being (badly) entertained is what she cares most about.
This role of garbage collector begins to explain why she has not penetrated the soul of America like Oprah or Martha. Oprah and Martha represent the two axes of American female achievement. Martha is the incarnation of accomplishment, the CEO of Getting Things Done. Oprah is the incarnation of feeling. Oprah, as David Carr put it in a recent Inside.com article, is America's "priestess," trusted by American women with their deepest emotions. Martha and Oprah demand action. We admire them because they want us to do something, and even if we don't actually do it, we're glad they pushed us.
But Rosie champions passivity and consumption. Rosie can never be Martha, because she believes watching television is the greatest of accomplishments. And she can never be Oprah, because she believes celebrity worship is the deepest of emotions.