On Monday, daytime's most venerable panel-talk show, "The View," returned from its tumultuous summer off with a new set, a new cast, and a bizarre new ritual worthy of "Game of Thrones." Gone-but-not-forgotten "View" empress Barbara Walters sat on a throne, crowned like a queen, and made Whoopi Goldberg and the three new co-hosts kiss her ring, then gave them a pep talk to send them off into battle. It's a wonder they didn't all pull out broadswords and start hacking away at each other for their Lannister monarch's amusement (and ours) -– given the history of the show, such a battle royale wouldn't have been out of place.
What did it mean? That Walters, despite her abdication in May from the show she created 17 years ago, would still serve as its guiding force? (Woe be unto her who strays from Walters' old-school daytime news show parameters of acceptable discourse!) That she'll be showing up occasionally to lend the show the regal panache that her younger and less celebrated successors can't muster? That none of the co-hosts should attend a wedding anytime soon?
It was hard to know what to expect when "The View" returned for its 18th season after so many changes –- Walters' retirement, the departure of all the hosts except Goldberg, the return of lightning rod Rosie O'Donnell and the hiring of newbies Rosie Perez and Nicolle Wallace, plus a new producer and a more informal in-the-round set. But then, it's always been hard to know what to expect from "The View."
Walters' initial idea for the show –- issues discussed by an all-female panel of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and political leanings –- was certainly novel. (And it still is, even with imitators like "The Talk," whose panel always gets along well, perhaps because it avoids political discussion almost entirely.) But the result was never as enlightening as the set-up suggested. The panel was always weighted toward people with showbiz or TV experience, which made them fascinating to watch but not necessarily experts on anything other than their own lives in the bubble of fame. Over the years, you could often count on Debbie Matenopoulos, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Sherri Shepherd, or Jenny McCarthy to make strikingly ignorant assertions, or O'Donnell or Joy Behar to start a fight. "Saturday Night Live" frequently parodied "The View" as a gaggle of clucking hens. And even when someone did have an intelligent insight, it was often swept away by the need to break for a commercial or rush to the next celebrity interview or lifestyle segment.
It's not really fair to blame "The View" for shallowness. Its blend of weighty news commentary and fluffy gossip and cooking tips isn't really any different from what's offered on so-called morning news shows like "Today" or "Good Morning America," it's just condensed into an hour. Also, a lot of the criticism of the show, often from male TV critics, was sexist, using traditionally misogynist words like "shrill" and "strident" to describe the panelists, or implying that these women's sometimes uninformed discourse was unwelcome not because it was uninformed but because the panelists were women. (What gives these broads the right to spout nonsense on TV? That's a man's job!)
The directive for the current panel seems to be: no fighting. During this first week, the discussions have been largely civil. Wallace, who has apparently inherited the blonde-Republican seat once inhabited by Hasselbeck, is still somewhat uncomfortable with the group (not because she's the only conservative, but because she's the only non-showbiz veteran and the only one still in her 40s), but as a former White House communications director and presidential campaign advisor, she is actually capable of speaking intelligently and drawing upon personal experience in politics. (Perhaps not coincidentally, she hasn't spouted party talking points but has been willing to cut President Obama some slack because she knows from her stint in the George W. Bush administration how hard his job is.) So she's no ideologue. O'Donnell is, but she no longer presses hard. She used to be relentless, but now she'll let a point slide after she's made it without trying to reinforce it. Perez is an assumed liberal but she hasn't made her politics apparent; the most animated she's been in four days is during discussion of "Dancing with the Stars," since choreography is her undeniable area of expertise. Goldberg has been all over the ideological map, most pointedly defending (in separate discussions this week) the right of a parent to go to extreme measures to discipline a child, with the two Rosies arguing fiercely against such tough-love tactics. (Perez claims to abhor violence, judging by her comments during the parenting discussions and talk of the Ray Rice scandal, but she also asked Wallace if, during the 2008 campaign, she ever wanted to just "pop" Sarah Palin. Consistency is not a hobgoblin of "The View.")
One reason the "Hot Topics" segments seem less volatile may be the set; it's replaced the old kitchen table with a coffee table and lower, more comfortable-looking chairs. When you're literally no longer on a pedestal, it's much harder to sound like you are.
Even the celebrity interviews are less noisy, if no less fawning. For whatever reason, only two co-hosts get to talk to the star, instead of the whole panel. So the visiting stars are no longer peppered with questions from all sides.
So now, we have the civil, polite, sedate "View" that critics always claimed they wanted. And guess what? They find it kinda boring. (See here, here, here, and here.)
What did they expect? A throwback to the era when daytime talk was a contact sport? It's easy to remember a time 20 years ago, before "The View," when daytime talk shows presided over by men (Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich) made a point of bringing on guests with lurid lifestyle issues, who would then live down to audience prejudices by getting into fights – real, physical, chair-tossing fights – with the hosts tut-tutting in mock condemnation like Vince McMahon at a WWE brawl. Compared to that, "The View," even at its most tempestuous, has been like a book discussion on C-SPAN. Maybe the critics (again, mostly men), prefer spectacle, but the show's actual viewers seem just fine with moderately heated discussion.
Sure, there are also critics who'd like to see more depth on "The View," but that's never going to happen. Not because it's a panel of women, but because the format simply won't allow it, not when every political discussion has to be interrupted every eight minutes in order to sell toothpaste and vitamins. Plus, it's hard to get much depth or insight out of a format that apes morning news (which is just as fluffy and gossipy, but in much fattier three-hour portions). And there's never going to be much diversity of opinion in a show whose panel consists of four well-to-do New York women between the ages of 40 and 60, three of them longtime movie and TV stars and one from the showbiz-like realm of Washington politics.
What does "The View" have going for it, then? A couple of things. One is Walters' still-novel idea about women talking politics on TV –- not that women can do political commentary the way men do, but that, for a predominantly female daytime audience accustomed to fluff, political discussion about serious issues, engaged in by women that viewers at home find at least somewhat relatable, can be as entertaining as movie star interviews and fitness tips. The quality of discourse might not be up to everyone's standards, but the fact that it exists at all, in daytime, is a formidable achievement.
The other asset is the program's dash of unpredictable showbiz eccentricity. Whether that's in the form of that weird throne sketch with Walters, or O'Donnell unloading a prepared rant against Mayim Bialik's (mis)reading of the movie "Frozen" as anti-feminist, or O'Donnell just being herself (showing up barefoot for Monday's premiere and blaming her shoelessness on her sciatica), or landing big "gets" worthy of Walters herself of personalities who seldom appear on talk shows (Barbra Streisand this week, Stephen King next week) –- there's always the possibility that something unpredictable, unscripted, and just plain bonkers will happen. It's those viral moments, after all, that have kept "The View" headline-worthy and relevant all these years, and that will keep critics and regular viewers alike tuning in, just in case.
Photo courtesy Fred Lee/ABC via Getty Images
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