The Ellen DeGeneres Show is in its final season and so far, for a final season, there hasn’t been all that much buzz. And it’s showing in the ratings. The number one daytime talk show of fall 2021 is Live with Kelly and Ryan, by an enormous margin over Ellen, as Ellen’s ratings still don’t seem to have recovered from the controversy last year.
We are currently, however, in November sweeps, which remains a critical period for conventional television so it’s no accident that Meghan Markle’s appearance on Ellen happened this week. They need the boost. Meghan was on for almost the entire show, participating in a standard interview followed by a game, then a joint interview to honour a community leader, and staying for the final block and the farewell in hopes of sustaining viewership through the whole hour.
This was Meghan’s first talk show appearance since she became a member of the British royal family and my first takeaway from it wasn’t about her but about Ellen who seemed, at least to me, super thirsty about telling the audience how close she is with Harry and Meghan of House Sussex, how much time she spends with them, how often she’s at their house. I mean, this is standard of celebrity talk show interviews since so many of them are friends with each other, and Harry and Meghan are 100% celebrities now, and operate as such, but it felt extra on Ellen’s part. Almost like she was bragging that she gets to see the babies, Archie and Lilibet, all the time – which I’m sure the British tabloids will love shouting about: Ellen sees the Queen’s great-grandchildren more than the Queen!
The reason I mention this though is that Ellen’s repeated mentioning about the closeness between her and Meghan actually had the opposite effect on the interview – it made it awkward. Because some of the questions that Ellen asked Meghan were introductory, things you’d ask someone you don’t know that well. But we’d already established that they’re neighbours, that they hang out, that Ellen is over at Harry and Meghan’s all the time. So it wasn’t like they were conversing the way they probably do when they don’t have cameras pointed at them. Where talk shows are concerned, there’s always pre-production involved. By now, it’s not a secret that talk show appearances begin with an advance set-up between the guest and the host’s team to set out the talking points, what stories and anecdotes the guests want to share so that the host can softball it over to them during the show. At the same time, the job of the host is to deliver that performance when it’s time to roll so that it feels like an organic flow of conversation. But as natural as Meghan is in this kind of setting, Ellen, despite doing this for years, couldn’t seem to find the groove; her transitions were clunky, the energy just wasn’t there, and none of it felt spontaneous. You could almost see her moving from one section on the cue card to the next.
It was especially weird, at least to me, when the subject came up about paid family leave. Meghan has been advocating this issue for months now – and of course it’s important family policy that’s also a labour issue. That’s the part of it that’s a bit tricky with Ellen because, well, her controversy was a labour issue, too. The rumours about Ellen’s personality and allegedly being mean to people and her tone deafness about spending lockdown at her mansion, that’s not what was most egregious. What was most egregious was how she treated her staff, the crew who were left in the dark about their futures when the pandemic first shut down production, hiring non-union employees to shoot from home, and the reports of toxic workplace conditions. You can’t separate paid family leave from overall workplace equity, and this is where Meghan opens herself up to criticism in showing up on Ellen.
Still, Meghan did what she could to support her friend. And that, too, is worth talking about. When Harry and Meghan first moved to America, it was rumoured that Ellen would be their first sit-down interview. Of course, we know now that Oprah Winfrey secured that exclusive which became the Television Event of the Year. That special still ranks among the highest rated programs of the year – and probably for years to come. We don’t see numbers like 17 million (almost double the Oscars!) anymore on network television for non-sports related events. Ellen wanted in on some of that action; after all, she’s been courting the Sussexes for years now, there should be a personal-professional payoff. So Meghan came through with all kinds of exclusives – not the bombshells that she and Harry threw down with Oprah, of course not, that’s not Ellen’s style anyway, but with stories she’s never told before, like how she and Harry spent Halloween in Toronto with Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, what Archie and Lilibet dressed up as for Halloween, the fact that Lilibet is teething, and a brand new photo of Archie with his chickens.
Meghan’s generosity with Ellen continued with the game. I told you there would be a game - disappointingly not Never Have I Ever, LOL, but for both Meghan and Ellen, the IFB game was the highlight of Meghan’s appearance. The IFB game is the one where the guest has an earpiece and must do whatever Ellen tells them to do or say. Here’s where Ellen recovered from the awkwardness of the interview, this is the spontaneity that was lacking in the interview.
This is good TV. Ellen is good at this, and she was having fun, and that translated through the screen. Meghan matched that energy, and those eight minutes became the best part of the show, thoroughly engaging, really funny, and a good look on both of them. I know this because I watched it with Jacek, my husband, last night when he wanted to start the new season of Big Mouth. And he couldn’t get enough of Meghan on the IFB, after which he was the one who made this observation: “The royals would never have let her do that, and none of them could have done it that way, either”. It’s true.
But remember, it’s not just Meghan. Harry already broke the seal on this kind of thing on American television – and he did it months ago, in February 2021 (also during sweeps) with James Corden. Like Meghan with Ellen, there was plenty of silliness with Harry and James too. They did Carpool Karaoke on a double decker bus. THEY STOPPED FOR A PEE BREAK at a stranger’s home. Remember, this is a prince of England, relieving himself at a random house. And then there was that obstacle course, when Harry set a thirst trap with his athleticism.
So both of them have done favours for their talk show friends (and themselves) to show a side of themselves that they were obliged to contain when they were working members of the British royal family. Which, yes, works to their advantage in terms of connecting to the American public. But at the same time, can we just officially acknowledge now that they’re fully leaning into their Celebrity, with a capital “C”? This is House Sussex of Hollywood, they’re playing the game.