TV review

Does Daytime TV Have to Be a Talk-Obsessed Hell?

The Daily Beast

May 28, 2015

If you turn the TV on during the day, you will hear a lot of talk—a great, relentless babble of commentary, views, polemics, judgments, and advice—and also, alongside this finger-pointing and verbal one-upmanship, stuff being sold.

Products, promotions, sponsorships, invective: network daytime TV is strange mix of selling, shilling, and the shrill—the kitchen table meets marketplace. One minute someone is confessing infidelity, the next it’s “get rid of your baby fat,” and then you’re on to ingenious shelving solutions, celebrities hawking a new TV show (hopefully with cute snaps of their kids), and—then—a recipe that must include cheese, cooed indulgently over by hosts who view cheese as the devil.

The success of The View—long-running, perpetually in crisis if you believe all the rumors—has meant the most popular or aped format has been the all-female panel talk show. CBS has The Talk, Fox has The Real, and now NBC is considering replacing the lackluster Meredith Vieira Show with another all-female panel talk show. Jenna Bush Hager and Tatyana Ali have apparently auditioned for it.

As if to ward off the axe that may be heading its way, Vieira has suddenly mutated panel segments into its format—a very uneven one yesterday featured an anguished discussion over whether it is worse to call someone a fag rather than fat.

Nothing useful was distilled from the resulting flailing attempts of her panel’s attempts at applause-worthy sound bites. Everyone was tangibly praying for the commercial break.

As critically trashed as The View is, as many times its own death notice has been written, and its hosts’ seats been sensationally vacated, it remains the model for what TV chiefs think the daytime audience want. For this, mazel to Barbara Walters.

If you look at early editions of The View compared to the free-for-all today, they feel like university debating societies.

However, while it may be best known for flashpoints like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselback shouting over one another, Star Jones’s leaving, Rosie leaving again, and Walters leaving for good, and Whoopi Goldberg remaining the show’s fulcrum—its own soap operatic universe of exits and entrances—The View’s legacy has been to become a template for all that has followed in its path.

Which is, crudely: a lot of women squalling and talking over one another. Rarely has conversation felt so terminal and exhausting as it does on daytime television. Watch enough of The View and The Talk, and you will never want to hold another dinner party ever again.

The Oprah model—one host, relying on a whole lotta audience love and loyalty—is dependent on the charismatic wattage of that host. Wendy Williams has it in spades. Vieira does too, but is just too darned nice and respectable, no matter if she dances with Flo Rida, dispensing money and wielding champagne on the back of a jet ski.

Daytime soaps once ruled the mainstream networks, but they have been replaced by the far cheaper marketplace of opinion, quizzes, and judgment as handed down in very brown courtrooms.

For over 12 hours, from the opening bell of the morning shows to the showbiz gossip shows after the evening news, this wonderland of banter, bitching, and shiny bazaar is populated by sunny smiles and Botoxed brows as rich, cosseted presenters vie to reassure they are just like the moms and stay-at-homes watching them.

The only gender blip in these panels is on the ABC cooking show, The Chew, which features three male presenters and two female. But still: the talk goes on, only momentarily quelled here by the consumption of whatever dishes they’re making.

Daytime’s talk shows are invariably a mix of celebrity gossip, studies which purport to tell us something new about marriage or our sex lives, and sometimes—if the story is big and grotesque enough—something that is actually in the news.

Because these shows are reliant on buoyant audience figures, they too must create news by saying outrageous things that are already in the news. Then they became news themselves, and talked about by other shows. It’s a strange, dispiriting food chain, dependent on sensationalism.

This almost twelve-hour stream of talk is punctuated with “if it bleeds it leads” news broadcasts (just in case all that talk has pacified you; the news provides immediate hot button panic and paranoia), and—like a Chekhov performances suddenly striking up at a Dairy Queen—the last remaining soap operas, The Young and the Restless, Days of our Lives, The Bold and The Beautiful, and General Hospital.

These dramas, themselves once laughed at and dismissed, are now glorious islands of relief in the oceans of prattle they exist within. Daytime soap operas may not seem to their detractors as saviors of the imagination, but they are.

Talk may be literally cheap for network bosses to program, but how much room do we have for it in our heads? The idea, presumably, is that the all-female panels replicate kitchen tables where female friends gather to set the world to rights. (Do these kitchen tables exist any more, with so many people working?)

They may be cast for conflict—on The View, Nicolle Wallace was drafted last year for a right-wing voice—but the days of Hasselbeck and O’Donnell shouting matches are long gone. Sisterly consensus appears to be the prize today. On CBS’ more entertaining The Talk, disagreements are quickly turned into comedy by Sharon Osbourne and Sheryl Underwood. The talk between the women is all-too visibly the filler for the sponsors and advertisers that give the shows their life.

The uniformity of opinions and focus during the day gives daytime TV the arid feel of an unchallenging wasteland. Everything is toned light: light gossip about Hollywood, light bitching about celebrity transgressions, light examinations of personal issues—with more feverish selling studded between the platitudes.

The only cloudy shadow over this determinedly sweet, intensely consumer-capitalist landscape comes via Dr. Phil, whose daily delve into the recesses of family disputes and stalking cases will inevitably leave you needing a double shower.

This queasy hour of television, which will make you feel 120 times worse about the world by its end, sees Dr. Phil get his depressing family meltdown scoop under the nefarious guise of a therapy session, which is all tough talk and simplistic moralizing. Never was this more inappropriately visible than in his “intervention” with Nick Gordon, boyfriend of Bobbi Kristina Brown.

Looking at the bland, predictable sameness all around, one might ask that if and when it comes to replacing Vieira, must there be more talk, more dead-eyed verbal theatrics, more rich, entitled celebrities playing at being mom? Or invent talk shows with more grit in their pearl, a greater variety of presenters and topics?

Instead of yet another panel show, why not try something totally different—more drama perhaps, or—shudder—documentaries; something, anything, that takes us away from the same-old, repetitive, round-table hamster wheel of the domestic, mundane, Hollywood, babies, love lives in free-fall, petty disputes, pretty dresses, and making the perfect apple pie. What if, in daytime, there was room to think more, and talk less?