After a little tweaking (namely, replacing Debbie Matenopoulos with Lisa Ling), the crew of ABC’s The View has achieved full alchemy. The five women who handle the hosting duties of this daytime talk fest—Barbara Walters, Star Jones, Meredith Vieira, Joy Behar, and Ling—have, together, struck upon just the right mix of ying and yang, of sugar and vinegar.
Theirs is the type of interpersonal sparks that TV producers often hope for but seldom get. It’s what Diane Sawyer paired with Sam Donaldson was supposed to be—and wasn’t. It’s what Dan Rather opposite Connie Chung was supposed to be - and wasn’t. It’s what Regis had with Kathie Lee, before they started hating each other.
Barbara Walters created The View, and in the program’s opening credits, she explains the concept: to bring together a variety of women, of different ages and backgrounds (i.e., with different points of “view”) and start them talking, in order to find out what “real” women today are thinking and feeling. One could argue that such a noble idea is best left to focus groups rather than a daytime talk show and it’s probably a fair criticism to note that the women of The View are too famous and well-paid to speak to and for their largely female audience at home. But that’s a charge that can be made against everyone in daytime TV.
Kudos go to Walters for bringing to the airwaves something that’s not the usual one-host-with-a-microphone set-up, familiar from Ricki, Sally, Maury, and so many others. And one also has to credit her with putting together a program that is perhaps the most integrated currently on the air. At a time when all the networks are still answering criticism about the dearth of some minorities and certain age groups on the air, The View has assembled a truly cross-sectional group. And what is even better is how the diversity of this group isn’t treated as any “big deal.” Its premise is not forced: Star doesn’t ask, “Lisa, how do Asian Americans feel on this?” Nor does Ling ask Vieira to be the spokesperson for “her generation.”
Each episode of The View begins with all the hosts introduced one by one (Walters sometimes misses an episode here and there, when she’s out attending to 20/20 or a great interview “get”). The hosts enter from the back of the de rigueur living room set. Their wildly, madly enthusiastic audience always welcomes them with cheers and a standing ovation. (What hath Oprah, Jerry and TRL wrought? All daytime studio audiences seem to be suffering from hyperactivity these days; I’ve seen less fervor at church revivals.)
Vieira (a multi-Emmy Award-winning news producer) has the de facto role of ringleader, seated at the head of the View roundtable. She guides the four to five hosts through their opening segment, called “Hot Topics.” Here, they discuss, with striking honesty and humor, everything from the latest news out of Afghanistan, to the recent nuptials of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to how to tell your “best girlfriend” that you HATE her new haircut.
After this opening free-for-all, the program segues into more typical daytime talk fare, focusing on such staples as cooking, fashion, entertaining, antiques, celebrity interviews, and whatnot. Unfortunately, guests who appear on the show (be they Martha Stewart, an actress, or author), always seem not only outnumbered (and they are, five to one), but also overwhelmed by the five strong personalities all throwing questions and comments at them at once. Sometimes the guests are lucky to just get a word in among the constant crosstalk. Similarly, during info-tainment segments, the guests have little speaking time, and hence, they dispense little information, insight, or advice. Also unfortunate are the topics addressed in these segments—they’re throwbacks to old-fashioned “women’s issues,” like, the dos and don’ts of laundry (don’t forget to separate your colors, ladies!) and pumpkin-carving ideas. Why aren’t these smart, accomplished women discussing things that are a little more global and political in nature?
Perhaps these segments are just a means for the hosts to quip and be clever, not designed to disseminate important info; perhaps, after “Hot Topics,” the rest of the program is meant to be filler. Certainly the remainder of the program pales after its high-energy, entertaining start. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the majority of The View viewers tune in only for “Hot Topics” and then switch over to Judge Judy or something else for the remainder of the hour. And that’s because “Topics” is the best, more freewheeling discussion on TV since the glory days of The McLaughlin Group. The opinions fly. The personal revelations fly. The one-liners fly. Even more remarkably, each of the hosts shines in her own way.
Walters is, of course, the most famous and influential, but she doesn’t wear her Legend status on her sleeve. Vieira has the solid news background (which grants certain legitimacy to the program) and physical glamour, but, as a married working mother, she’s got enough stories about car-pooling and soccer games to be “real” to the rest of us. Stand-up comic Behar is a breakout talent—she’s extraordinarily witty and has just the right sense of what the viewers at home must be thinking. She always brings the group back to earth if they become too self-absorbed or too “New York” for Middle America. Jones, an attorney and frequent TV commentator, is the self-described “diva,” but her penchant for designer labels and high-priced shoes is successfully tempered by her “just the facts” legal mind. Ling is the designated “voice of Gen X,” and what she may lack in personal experience, she makes up for with an uncommonly evolved level of common sense.
Ultimately, The View offers us five funny, informed, and, yes, liberated women who get together everyday for a little coffee and a little talk. And, like that perfect cup of java, when the mix is just right, there isn’t anything better.