Oprah Winfrey Is a Great Interviewer Because She Paints the Corners

Oprah With Meghan And Harry: A CBS Primetime Special
Oprah With Meghan And Harry: A CBS Primetime Special / Handout/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey needs no introduction but she reintroduced herself to the world via a deftly effective and impactful interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry last evening in a television event that's quaintness belied its impact.

It seems odd to say someone who has reached the summit of several different media mountains had a re-defining career highlight yet, as we sit here some 12 hours later in reflection, that's exactly what happened. Thirty-five years after the debut of her trailblazing, eponymous talk show, Winfrey proved she's every bit the superstar she's always been, whether that be as an actor, journalist, icon or producer. All hats she needed to wear in some capacity to pull this high-stakes, high-wire act off without breaking a sweat.

Comfortable near the white-hot nexus of fame, Winfrey secured a sit-down with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose very presence as her neighbors suggests something unprecedented is happening with the Royal Family, the gulf between Harry and Meghan wider than the ocean and former colony separating them from departed home.

Seated some eight feet away from Markle in a beautifully regal pergola, Oprah struck a friendly and curious tone, masterfully editing her many questions down to the ones drawing the most frank responses, then pivoting with ease to chase the follow-ups to ensure she was always exploring the most interesting angle.

And that is no small feat. For the most famous interviewer in the world to be smart enough to remain humble, to largely stay out of the way of the subject's story, is an unbelievable accomplishment. The natural tendency is to try to match the gravitas of a big guest and it so often ends up in stepping on toes and ruining the casual flow of conversation. Winfrey did not let her ego drive the story she wanted to tell. Instead, she gently pressed for more details at every turn, and as a result both she and the audience was richly rewarded with a layered, complete, and powerful narrative from the couple.

It may seem crass to evaluate performance and theatrics and stage management in wake of the harrowing revelations the estranged Royals presented. But make no mistake: Oprah was not chosen as a partner for this project by mistake. Meghan and Harry got exactly the empathetic competence required to allow this bombshell to land with maximum impact. The couple's self-evident and myriad issues with the press precluded them from being grilled by a traditional, shoe-leather journalist. Yet no one can say Winfrey left breadcrumbs unfollowed or claims unexamined. She was soft in her prodding, yes, but she did make it clear the severity of the conversation and, in many cases, caused Markle to either double-down or soften her words for the official record.

The fallout will be massive. It's been a long time since an interview landed like this. In many ways, it's the perfect storm of celebrity, intrigue, and societal magnification. While it is certainly not the most important thing to happen as a result, it's undeniable that Winfrey has once again put herself at the forefront of the world's conversation. A place she's been so many times, yet with decreasing frequency in recent years.

Watching last night, the whole production felt like a relic of television's past. Something from the pre-Trump world. Something primally titillating yet somewhat removed and therefore safely enjoyed for being a messy mess of spilled tea. And that's how far back we need to go to find Oprah at the center of the frame. Though it may feel like 20, it's only been five or six years since there was speculation she could run for president. Before that? You may have to go back a decade, or more, to find a more impactful moment.

That she was able to jump back into the spotlight with a skilled, measured, and appropriately humble performance is a testament to her greatness both in front of the camera and her understanding that an interviewer is only as good as the subject. When that subject is providing the goods, getting in the way can only hurt. Knowing that having a big name does not always mean you should have a big voice is proof-positive of someone with a mastery of both strategy and sense of self.

Though the circumstances are less than desirable, there's something comfortable and interesting about Winfrey having a moment, in proving that she has that fastball and can paint the corners to great success.