BY TOM MCALLISTER
NOTE: This post is part 4 in an ongoing series of reviewsof syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editorTom McAllister.
I can tell you many things about Bethenny Frankel’s eponymous talk show but I cannot tell you why it exists.
I know Bethenny herself thinks it exists to fulfill some purpose of inspiration and empowerment and helping people achieve their dreams and so forth. In her premier episode, she delivered this opening monologue:
This show is not about me, it’s about us. It’s about the next step in the journey. About the journey not the destination. About me inspiring you and you inspiring me and us inspiring other people… And I want to help you to accomplish all your dreams and pay it forward… I speak to women every day every day, and I listen to what they’re going through. It’s amazing how strong we are. It’s amazing what we can accomplish.
Even though that speech reads like Daytime TV Madlibs, I get the sense she actually believes it, at least more so than some of her competitors do when they make similar pronouncements. She’s not a good enough actress to fake the sincerity evident in that speech, and during her frequent references to the rags-to-riches narrative of her career, it’s clear that she feels incredibly lucky to have ever achieved the life she now gets to live. And even though I don’t at all understand her life dream of just being a person on TV regardless of context, and even if I find her Skinnygirl line of drinks to be awful-tasting and at least a little problematic in its branding, she’s had legitimate business success with a product people seem to like. She has discernible life skills, is what I’m saying, and although her show is never actually interesting, one never gets the sense that she’s faking a persona the way so many of her counterparts have obviously crafted self-consciously “outrageous” characters in a desperate bid to stay on TV and in tabloids.
Although most of Bethenny’s celebrity was earned doing things that I normally avoid, I still had some peripheral knowledge of her before I watched the show. I knew, for example, that she was from the Bravo stable of reality stars. I knew that I hated the name of her show, Bethenny Ever After, in the way I hate all of the not-quite-punny titles for reality shows, the ones where producers just shove the star’s name into a well-known saying without regard to logic, grammar, or even clarity. I reject this degradation of our culture to the point that we’re too lazy to even come up with good puns; I reject the sloppy decision to just find a cliché and cram it together with a non-pun and pretend it’s clever. I reject the entities who are complicit in maintaining this ruse of cleverness by reprinting the titles of these shows and never ever questioning them or demanding that they be changed for the good of humanity, because, listen, we need to keep saying this over and over again until it makes some kind of difference in the world: a culture is its language and when we stop even pretending to care about the language, when we go out of our way to degrade it and make a mockery of it, when we decide the language itself is worthless, then we cease being a culture and instead become nothing but a mass of nameless consumers. We negate ourselves.
* * *
This show doesn’t do any of the things Bethenny wants it to do. It fills up some time in the morning before lunch (it airs at 11 on my Fox affiliate). It says some things that are not novel or compelling or even shocking. It passes on endless bits of received wisdom about relationships (more on this Friday). And then it’s over. Why does it exist? Because TV needs to find some noise to string between the commercials so we don’t look away. Because background noise fills the empty spaces. Because people who are home with their toddlers need something to do besides asking the toddler what does the cow say and what does the dog say and what does the cat say and oh my god what did you do and why would you put that in your mouth?
And I guess there’s value in that. Sort of.
If we accept that we need shows like this in general, I also can’t tell you why it this particular one shouldn’t exist. Bethenny was cancelled earlier this year. It only survived one season, and is burning off the already-recorded episodes. I’m not going to say it’s a good, or even particularly watchable, show, but, measured against the low bar of daytime television, begrudgingly accepting the lowered standards inherent in all of these evaluations, this show is adequate.
The problem is, when you shoot for the middle, when your goal is to be part of the sloppy morass that is daytime TV, it’s easy to be overlooked. You’re just part of the noise. The noise itself isn’t replaceable, but the noisemakers are.
* * *
A word about adequacy:
I teach composition to college freshmen. One of our departmental goals in First Year Writing is to emphasize revision, to teach writing as a process. Fundamental to that goal is not grading drafts of essays, because the letter grade makes all your other comments invisible. English teachers know that you could write seven paragraphs of thoughtful analysis of the essay, but if it ends with B+, the student will not see those other words and will never think about them again. In theory, at least, we force the students to read the comments because they want to have a sense of how their essay measures up, and they don’t have that letter grade to cling to. Still, this is an enormously frustrating approach for anxious students, who just want to know: am I going to pass? Am I going to be able to get into dental school? And they won’t really know until their final portfolio grade is turned in.
So, like most other professors in the department, I try to offer a compromise: I won’t leave a grade, but I’ll leave a faux-grade that at least gives you an idea of where you stand. Every essay draft I mark ends with a couple paragraphs of comments and one of these non-grades:
Frequently, students will misinterpret those bottom two grades, either reading “unsatisfactory” without the crucial prefix, or assuming “adequate” means good, when it definitively does not. “So,” they might say, “It says adequate, which is pretty good, right?” Partly this is a vocabulary issue: I learned a few semesters ago that a number of students had no idea what the word itself meant (and never bothered to look it up even thought it was directly tied to their grade and even though they carry supercomputersin their pockets). But I think it’s something else too, something about the inflation of grades and deflation of expectations. I tell them that if someone described my work as adequate, I’d be miserable about it, it would gnaw at me for weeks and fill me with spite and make me want to write something so good that person would choke on it. I continue that if you’re happy with being described as mediocre, with being the type of person who elicits shrugs, then you’re wasting a lot of money on college classes because it’s easier and cheaper to be an ambitionless mediocrity without spending five or six years in pursuit of an expensive degree you don’t care about. I insist that adequate is the baseline above which we’re all expected to rise and the whole point of the process is to challenge yourself to exceed that. I want to impress upon them is that adequate is in itself inadequate, that a life lived shooting for inoffensive isn’t a life at all, and that there is much more dignity in grand failure than there is in quietly stumbling along for five to eight decades, consuming oxygen and fresh water and free-range chickens and energy drinks for no reason at all.
Most of us will eventually find our way to mediocrity, if it doesn’t find us first, but I don’t at all understand the mindset that drives one to aspire toward mediocrity, to embrace it, to somehow achieve record high levels of self-esteem and to feel entitled to opining on issues of grave national importance while simultaneously expecting nothing of yourself but performing the basic functions of life.
I suspect during these speeches, many students want me to just shut up and tell them how to get a B. But I hope that someday, when they’re twenty-two and thinking, Ok that’s it, I’m done, best years of my life are over and whaddyagonnado, no more learning or growth for me, that they hear me. I hope it prevents them from giving up even in the face of the endless indignities of work. I hope it prevents them from just shrugging their way into a grave sometime in the future without having even tried.
* * *
The show opens with what seems like a parody of Daytime TV themes, a bright cheery song that plays over highlights of Bethenny dancing and looking wacky. The lyrics of the opening theme:
Callin’ all my girls,
Get it Real
We can ChaChaCha
it’s your day celebrate
Callin all my girls
Then Bethenny emerges from backstage, walking past a giant glowing sign that say YES. The audience greets her with wild applause and she does an uncomfortable shimmy, because daytime talk hosts are all required to dance. After a brief greeting, she introduces the day’s guest(s).
The featured guest in the first episode I watch is Jeff Lewis, some house-flipping guy from a Bravo show about house-flipping. I’m led to believe that he is notorious for acting like a huge asshole all the time, which is natural because that’s the reality TV niche Bravo has chosen to occupy. He seems basically fine, except for the gross and dismissive way he talks about his Nicaraguan housekeeper.
Even though he warrants no more than 90 seconds of content, he remains on the couch with Bethenny for 45 minutes. At one point, a woman in the audience, almost in tears, her hands shaking, is handed the mic and she announces that she’s so inspired by Bethenny every day, so she and her husband are here to celebrate her birthday. Coincidentally, it’s her husband’s dream to one day be insulted by Jeff Lewis. The audience applauds the world’s saddest dream. But then something excruciating happens: Lewis doesn’t even insult him. He barely acknowledges his petitioner.
The husband’s moment of failure overshadowed the rest of the show for me. This was his dream. You spend your whole life dreaming and too often falling short and settling into the grooves of the many failures who have preceded you, and then one day, despite all the frustrations and stresses and losses, you have your chance. You bring your wife to the talk show so she can achieve her dream of meeting the host, and now it’s your turn. For years you’ve dreamed of being insulted by the house-flipper, and then, at the moment when everything should turn around for you, you find yourself uninsultable. You wait, hoping maybe he’s coming up with a great zinger, maybe after the commercial break, but know in your gut it’s not coming. You know that you have failed and will have to somehow find the energy to come up with a new dream. Afterward, you go out to a local café for lunch with your wife and try to share in her joy, and scroll through the pictures she took on her phone, and even though you smile and tell her you’re happy for her, you just keep thinking: what did I do wrong? You just keep thinking: I’m not good enough and I’m not bad enough, and all I wanted was to be something. You slurp on your french onion soup, avoiding eye contact with your wife, and you think: I am adequate. That’s it.
Check in Friday for more Bethenny, thoughts on relationship roundtables, and the dating wisdom of daytime.
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.