NOTE: This post is part 6 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister.
A partial transcript of Bling In a Box, the first segment of The Queen Latifah Show that I ever watched:
QUEEN LATIFAH: Ok, let’s meet our contestants… Annie, what do you do?
CONTESTANT ONE: Hi, I’m Annie. I’m 24 years old, originally from Washington State, and I make Youtube videos and do headshot photography.
QL: You make Youtube videos? Wow! What do you do on these Youtube videos?
CO: I mean… randomness, but a lot of the times, my friends, when I have blond hair, they use me as Taylor Swift on their parody videos.
QL: I can see that!
I rewound this scene and rewatched it three times (twice with captions) so I could confirm that I was actually hearing the things I thought I was hearing. Daytime TV, in its determined march toward blandness and product placement, has a way of inducing boredom so extreme that I’m afraid at some point in this project I’m going to have a psychotic break and my mind will start filling in the frequent dead spaces with bizarre visions in an effort to save itself. (It’s possible this exact issue did occur when I saw a man with a flat affect, wearing an outfit best described as clerical, tell Florence Henderson during a dating game segment that he wanted to put her in a taco and eat her; I was so unsettled by his weird, emotionless performance that I couldn’t bear to rewatch it).
But I rewatched that initial conversation with Annie and rewatched again and then I showed it to my wife and I can assure you: that conversation happened. It happened and I watched it happen. It was the first time since embarking on this project that I began to doubt my ability to persevere.
* * *
It took me four tries to get through a full episode of The Queen Latifah Show. The first two episodes I watched were among the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. The low point was when Latifah launched into a pre-scripted bit where she introduced Mark Harmon, the boring-looking guy from NCIS, by launching into a Shaft-style slow jam wherein she breathily repeated the phrase “There’s no harm… in… Harmon.” There were more lyrics, but I accidentally deleted the recording from my DVR in self-defense. In my memory, this bit lasted approximately forty-three hours and there were a hundred verses and they were all so brutally uncomfortable to watch that I felt organ-deep pain for Latifah, who three times broke character—I swear I am not projecting here—and shrugged, flashed a plaintive look at the camera to apologize for what was happening, and then continued, because she is a professional and professionals do the job even when the job is terrible.
Every episode includes some deeply unfunny comedy bits that cannot be salvaged Queen Latifah’s natural charisma and sense of humor. There is Latifah as a teenage movie reviewer, Latifah doing a sketch as an old grandma alongside Vicki Lawrence’s Mama character, George Lopez delivering the worst Cinco de Mayo jokes in history, and some other stuff it’s best for us to never discuss.
As I trudged through four episodes, I was deeply saddened by how bad they were, not just because the existence of something so thoroughly unentertaining is toxic for the universe, but because Queen Latifah is imprisoned on this disastrous show. She’s a pioneer! She has legitimate, well-documented talent! She is better than this, I kept reminding myself. I felt guilty watching, complicit in stripping away her dignity while she mugged through sub-Vilanchian comedy bits and scripted interview questions shallower than a bird bath (So, Mark Harmon, do you have any nicknames? Tell me, Ricky Martin, do you still enjoy dancing?).
Because I like Queen Latifah, I was prepared to write the angriest, most venomous thing I’ve ever written on my website. I was prepared to lament the sad fate of public life; that at some point, there is a second act and maybe even a third act, but each time you return it becomes more degrading and less creatively fulfilling and exists only to destroy you.
* * *
The grim spectacle of a creative icon reduced to starring in something so vacuous and profoundly bad transported me to a familiar dark place, a place where I sometimes find myself, driven by existential despair, retreating when the realities of the world become too much for me to handle. In this place I was alone and I felt convinced of the ultimate meaninglessness of everything we do, of the futility in believing in things. I was haunted for most of a week by the nagging sense that every act is destined to fail, that the story of our lives is the steady stripping away of our last vestiges of dignity. I was thinking about how the only writing I’ve done for months is evaluating the worst products of our culture. I was dwelling on a semester’s worth of failures in the classroom after a frustrating semester. I was aware of every unrealized ambition in my life hanging off me like phantom limbs. I was afraid to get off the couch and go upstairs to shower because I was sure I would fall down the steps and my wife would return from work and find my body, and when she looked at the laptop to see my last thoughts they would be transcribing quotes from a woman who makes Youtube videos, a woman who sometimes has blond hair, a woman who likes randomness. I was thinking about rising tides and tornado warnings and imminent earthquakes and falling trees and an earth turned inside out.
* * *
I didn’t feel great.
* * *
But then something happened that didn’t solve everything but at least lifted the fog and helped me find my way out of that lonely place. What happened was Queen Latifah staged a legitimately very good episode. It wasn’t great art, but it was so much better than the others that it looked like a totally different show. If I were stuck in a waiting room watching that episode, I would be not angry at all to be watching it. I’d be even sort of not-unhappy.
The episode was a tribute to women, which in the pandering daytime landscape is not all the unique, but here it was conducted thoughtfully and quietly and intelligently. Gloria Steinem was the first guest. They discussed the challenges of growing up female in a culture that defines you as second-class, the importance of teaching girls that they’re not stupid or less capable even if the culture seems designed to tell them they are. They unapologetically used big words. They had an actual dialogue. They did not ever spout a canned cliché of an empowerment slogan. They never stopped for applause breaks. It was two smart, accomplished women talking about a complex issue in a relatively complex way.
Naturally, I worried this progress would be undermined by something dumb like one of the show’s trademark “instant dance parties,” in which some music starts playing and Latifah gets up and gyrates for exactly 14 seconds before sitting down and telling everyone how much fun that was. But there were no interruptions. There were just more guests.
Rita Moreno, Arianna Huffington, and Melissa Harris-Perry all sat together and discussed a range of issues facing women. They again did so in relatively measured, nuanced terms. Huffington seemed most interested than the others in cheap applause points, but mainly they all acted as if the audience wasn’t there. Queen Latifah talked about how language can be used to alienate and victimize people, how when she was growing up it hurt and confused her to be called a tomboy all the time, and how her father helped her overcome the alienation. She and Harris-Perry discussed the duality of a word like “bitch” which can be reclaimed as empowering or can be used as a weapon. They all reflected on moments in their own lives when they’ve both challenged and abided by gender norms.
Thematically, it was the same stuff many of these shows purport to cover, but this was like the grown-up version of that conversation. It wasn’t boring; there were still jokes and laughs and passionate comments, but they were real and unscripted and it was so strange to see this happening on a show sandwiched between The Talk and Dr. Phil.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of the episode; the conversation still had its limits due to the constraints of TV, but it was so vastly superior to everything else I’ve watched so far that that one hour justified the existence of this whole show to me. It was an actual valuable contribution to our culture; it seemed like the show Queen Latifah probably aspires to make, but probably can’t afford to because she’d be off the air after three weeks. It just wouldn’t be fun enough. It just wouldn’t have enough wacky distractions.
And so maybe the terrible episodes are the toll she has to pay in order to occasionally make the good ones. Maybe Queen Latifah understood this all along and is ok with the bad comedy bits and the Mark Harmon-izing as long as it means now and then she gets to trick the people into watching something with substance. Maybe one can’t expect to be great all the time, but needs to understand the limitations imposed upon them, subvert them when possible, and seize the few opportunities they get to make something that matters.
Check back Friday for the next installment, which will probably be about The Doctors, or maybe Rachael Ray but I don’t know I’m not sure yet.
Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.