Boy, did I pick the wrong time to praise Ellen DeGeneres. “Not since Johnny Carson have I seen a talk-show host so in command of her environment as DeGeneres is on her show,” I wrote last December. Which was true, but I failed to take into account the fact that she only does her show one hour a day. The rest of the day is where it all fell apart for DeGeneres, who we now know had been accused for years of running a toxic shop. Krystie Yandoli’s outstanding reporting for BuzzFeed News revealed an out-of-touch host who let producers abuse junior staffers with abandon. “That ‘be kind’ bullshit only happens when the cameras are on,” one ex-employee told Yandoli. “It’s all for show.”
It used to be what happened off-stage didn’t matter, so long as the ratings were fine — Johnny’s former wives and business associates could’ve told you that. But with social media just a click away, bad news can spread rapidly, infecting entire audiences, and no vaccine or mask can stop it. Ellen’s ratings have plummeted since BuzzFeed’s reports and subsequent piling on by others. (Mariah Carey’s account of her on-air pregnancy reveal showed a passive-aggressive side to DeGeneres that I would not want to mess with.)
Which, speaking of timing, brings us to the arrival of Drew Barrymore in daytime. Barrymore, the life of the party for most of her 45 years — including childhood, with a stint in rehab at 14 — may be a newbie to the hosting game, but she has sailed through her first few days as the host of The Drew Barrymore Show. CBS rolled out the syndicated chat show on schedule last Monday with a video-board audience and Barrymore’s crew doing their best to fill the studio with noise.
The highlight of the first show was Barrymore welcoming her Charlie’s Angels co-stars, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz, onto the set for a socially distanced reunion that pushed the letterbox format of HDTV to the edges. And once again, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, not having to shout over an over-caffeinated audience does wonders for a TV chat. I think this favors someone like Barrymore, who clearly enjoys talking in paragraphs.
As she and Diaz began talking about their kids, Diaz noted correctly that “they go on, we will die.” Shooting a look across the room at Barrymore, she added apologetically, “I hate to get morbid …” but the host seemed eager to have an opening.
“I’m no longer a young idiot who thinks I am immortal,” Barrymore said. “I hurled myself around, I abused this carcass to no end, and I just thought — true — that I was going to die young. Who cares? Go for it. But now, 2020 will make you think about your mortality, children will make you think...”
And if there are more extended talk segments like that, Drew Barrymore may get her audience to think, which is a rare thing in daytime television.
Drew joins a surprisingly crowded field in daytime. Ratings keep sinking for these shows (as they are for everything else on terrestrial TV), but that isn’t killing off warhorses like Maury, Steve Wilkos, and Dr. Oz. (Judge Judy is signing off after this season, but the judge plans to stick around in either reruns or with a new show.) For that matter, Ellen isn’t going anywhere, it seems. And if you’re looking for a chatty, TV-friendly gal, well, Kelly Clarkson is all that — she sings real good, and she just picked up the Daytime Emmy after her first season.
So is there room for one more bubbly daytime host? I’m going to say yes. Barrymore has a quality I don’t see in a lot of television personalities — whether she’s reading off a prompter or FaceTiming with ordinary folks, she has this way of looking straight into the camera like we're her friend. It’s a humanizing trait that should cut her a lot of slack with viewers. So she screws up pronunciations of women’s tennis players — with a tossed-off “this is live TV,” she plows ahead without missing a beat. She’s seemingly unflappable and might be unstoppable. (I will say she has a very distinct way of talking that reminds me of Christine Ebersole’s character on Bob Hearts Abishola.)
But there is work to do. Her “Drew’s News” segments, delivered from behind a long circa-1980 Weekend Update desk, are an interesting take on the monologue portion of the show, and are probably more comfortable for Barrymore, who’s used to sitting down on talk shows rather than standing up. (Except on Dave's birthday. But that was 25 years ago.). However, she can’t rely on the same generic good-news stories that you see on Kelly and Ellen and, for that matter, the morning shows’ third hours.
My suggestion is that her producers look for stories that tug at Barrymore’s heart-strings. Not our heart-strings — hers. I counted at least three occasions early this week where Barrymore was fighting back tears. She seems able, as was said of Jack Paar, to cry at the drop of a hat. And it’s endearing. It shows she cares. With late-night hosts competing to deliver the slickest burn to the president and his enablers, the news a nightly foreboding of apocalypse, and social media losing its mind twice an hour, America could use someone willing to weep on our collective behalf.
The Drew Barrymore Show is now airing in syndication. Click here to check your local listings.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.