“The View,” which is now chugging along in its 12th season, feels like it’s been around forever. Part of this, I suppose, is because of the presence of Barbara Walters. Walters, who turns 80 in September, had already been alive for a couple of decades when ABC, the network that broadcasts “The View,” first went on air in 1948. And so, when I see her, I find it easy to draw a line back to the dawn of TV. I imagine Barbara’s image flickering on a grainy black and white television set, she’s youngish, smoking a long and elegant cigarette while chatting with her cohorts about Shake ‘N Bake Chicken, Jackie Kennedy’s shoes and whether blacks have what it takes to play in Major League Baseball.
In spite of “The View’s” very conscious efforts to project a diverse and modern sensibility, there remains a retro quality to the show. There’s something about the all female cast, which was engineered to appeal to an all female audience, that recalls the 1950’s America of rigid gender segregation.
No matter, in 2009 “The View” seems to somehow reflect the conflicting voices of mainstream American women, with the five co-hosts taking on the form of modern oracles.
Barbara Walters is the grand doyenne and co-creator of “The View.” Dessicated and somewhat spectral in appearance, she casts a chilly, imperious shadow across the show, reminiscent of Darth Vadar presiding over the Death Star. Free of charm, she’s a bit of a buzz kill. Always attempting to weave a thread of gravitas through the proceedings, she proudly hovers above her minions like a dark spell.
Next in line is Whoopi Goldberg, who clearly has the most agile mind of the group. She stepped in as Rosie O’Donnel’s replacement in 2007, and plays the role of the eccentric and wise aunt who manages to be simultaneously subversive and mainstream. And like her character Guinan was in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Goldberg’s the voice of moral authority on “The View.”
Joy Behar, now in her 60s, has an 80’s hairstyle and the blue-collar wit of a liberal Italian from the Bronx. She’s brassy and frank, like a drunken neighbor at a cocktail party, which probably makes her amongst the most likable of the women on the show.
At the other end of the spectrum is Elisabeth Hasslebeck, who is the youngest and prettiest co-host, as well as being the most rabidly conservative. Plucked from the reality show “Survivor,” Hasslebeck resembles a glittering blonde preppy princess. Not only is she actually married to a NFL quarterback, but on “Survivor,” the one person she truly bonded with was an old, white guy with oodles of money named Roger. She’s All-American, in a gated community, I-hate-America kind of way, and she’s pregnant, once again, with America’s future.
Finally, there is Sherri Shepherd, who vacillates in weight. A comedian, Shepherd plays Tracy Jordan’s wife on “30 Rock,” and joined the cast of “The View” in 2007. Her primary role seems to be to give the little respected Hasslebeck someone to whom she might condescend.
Unburdened by imagination or a curious mind, it’s Shepherd who says the most ridiculous things on the show. After telling the world that she didn’t go in for that evolution, she was asked if she thought the world was flat. Shepherd said that she’d never thought about it, and then scrambled to repair the damage by saying that she was too busy raising her children to indulge in such self-indulgent naval gazing, letting everybody know that if you’re not careful, belief can absolve you of the responsibility of thought.
I tuned into the catch some of this rich pageant the other day, and was startled to see a new set. Replacing the cerebral blue of previous years, was a more intuitive orange, one that was so spiritual, warm and optimistic that I thought that Oprah herself might recently have been a guest, and from her feet, the set came aglow with her majesty.
Otherwise, the show, in which the five women discuss social, political and entertainment issues, was pretty much the same. The first half of the show was dedicated to their Hot Topics debate. This is the meat and potatoes of the show, in which they cover issues like Michael Jackson, Sarah Palin and North Korea. In this segment we found out that the white women on the panel were suspicious of Michael Jackson, while the black women refused to judge. We also found out that Elisabeth Hassleback supports the troops and loves the 4th of July.
In short order this devolved into a celebration of Michelle Obama, before completely deteriorating into a product placement ad for the company that made the purse she took on a recent trip to Russia. Naturally, this lead to a narcotic infusion of celebrity guests and lifestyle features, where we learned of LL Çool J’s myriad business ventures and how easy it is to now get scars and tattoos removed.
It all sounds kind of stupid and frothy, and often it is, but at it’s best there’s a current of unpretentious and authentic candor that runs through the show. During the election, the conversations on “The View” were often electric, with relatively normal people, often with fixed political positions, going to battle in an entirely accessible fashion. Unlike the loftier political shows, in which insider spin-doctors played clever games of dodge ball with one another, “The View” offered the deeply felt, if sometimes misinformed ( Sherri Shepherd—who said that she has never voted— I am looking directly at you) opinions of the people who constitute the country, and not just dissect it.
It’s a middlebrow enterprise, one that rarely talks down to its audience and is self-assured enough to swoon over how pretty Michelle Obama’s purse is. It seeks to elevate the discourse of its audience, but not too much, never making the mistake of going too far over the heads of the core audience. And so when we watch, we can safely snigger, knowing that these particular people and the ideas they hold, are every bit as idiotic, shallow and indefensible as our own.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.