The Talk (part 1): talking about talking about talking



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NOTE: This post is part 2 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editorTom McAllister

The Talk, CBS’s answer to The View, is accurately, if not very creatively, named. There are five regular hosts, plus the occasional guest host like Boy George or Marie Osmond. They gather for an hour and use their faces to create words and other word-like sounds (including YAY, which several of the hosts are prone to yelling during frequent applause breaks). These sounds, combined with a variety of spastic gestures and facial contortions, more or less replicate the rhythms of human speech and are presented to the world as The Talk.

To the show’s (minor) credit, it promises nothing beyond talking, and never pretends to be more than a series of English words strung together in a somewhat specific order in order to fill the air with noise. A product like this may perform a powerful function for lonely shut-ins, for people still learning the English language, for the intoxicated, and for dogs whose owners leave the TV on during the day to keep them company. It performs few other functions, aside from creating enough insecurities in the audience to sell them beauty products.

I need to stress this: the show is not about conversation. It is about creating Talk. The show’s website, for example, seems to have been created by a random text generator. Littered with sub-Hallmark level inspiration, it includes profiles of each host. This month, Julie Chen is excited about four things: coconut jelly beans, pastel nail polish, flowers, and Easter. Her current favorite quote is by Susan J. Bissonette: “An optimist is the human personification of spring.” Sharon Osbourne’s current favorite quote is, naturally, by Sharon Osbourne: “What could be better than Spring? It’s such a great time of year.”

Indeed, what could be better than Spring?

It’s such a great time of year.

Anyway, each episode generally follows this formula:

SEGMENT 1: “hard news,” during which Chen (the “serious one”) introduces the day’s Big Issue. Chen is good at reading from the teleprompter, which sounds like light praise, but she is noticeably better at it than many of her daytime TV counterparts. If you can overlook the nearly unoverlookable gymnastics of her right eyebrow while she reads from the prompter, you can be fooled into thinking you are about to hear about some serious news. All this week, the big story was L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s meltdown. After reading the news details—which prompts plenty of oohing from the crowd—Chen throws to the group, sort of, not with any specific question but by finishing her reading and then looking away from camera in anticipation of one of the other women’s comments. Then someone makes a comment that is tangentially related to what Chen said. Then someone else makes a comment that may or may not be related to the previous comment. Eventually all of the hosts say one thing. Usually each comment elicits applause and/or guffaws from the crowd. Then Chen moves to the next part of the story. The pattern repeats. It is unclear whether any of these women is capable of extemporaneous conversation. It is unclear whether anyone cares. They are all there to provide one quip or non sequitur. For five women who insist frequently on how much fun they have together (guest host Marie Osmond spent the first five minutes of her episode reassuring doubters that, yes, this is real, and yes, they’re like this all the time!), their fumbling attempts at conversation are painfully stilted.

A partial transcript of a recent talk:

Chen: Now for the latest on Sterling-gate. Despite everything, Donald Sterling was out and about last night. Take a look at what happens when TMZ catches him at a fancy restaurant

[Execrable TMZ guy yells some things at him]
[nothing happens]

Chen:  So, what do you think about Donald Sterling being out and about??

Sara Gilbert: I think it just shows his continued arrogance.

Sharon Osbourne: He’s clueless!

Marie Osmond: It looked like he was eating strawberries. You know, I’m allergic to strawberries so I only eat them on Sundays when I don’t have to sing.

Sheryl Underwood: You know what I’m allergic to? Cheap men with tiny penises!

[raucous applause]

I swear to you this happened.

Two notes before we move on:

1) I have no idea, still, who Sheryl Underwood is, but I know who she’s supposed to be, and since she’s clearly designed to be a word-delivery device, it doesn’t really matter who she is. She has abdicated her personhood. She is the one who makes bawdy jokes. She is “edgy.” She is the one who shouts.

2) I’m not even clear why Sterling—terrible a person as he is—shouldn’t go out to eat. I mean, I don’t sympathize with him exactly, but I think it says something about the way our culture responds to scandal that the moment someone does something we find offensive, we just expect him to disappear.

SEGMENT 2: Sometimes called the “top talker” segment. Seems to alternate between the hosts offering more hot takes on a trending topic or talking to some celebrity gossip person. The celebrity gossip person achieves Top Talker status by delivering a piece of meaningless gossip about Prince Harry or somebody. The hosts react. One of them, usually Underwood, says something salacious. People applaud. People yell YAY. People say words. The Top Talker delivers a question in a tone that indicates he’s saying something important but he’s not saying something important. One Top Talker asked, “Question for the ladies: have you ever changed your mind about somebody you’ve met?” Another asked, “Ladies, now my question for you is: have you ever turned a negative into a positive?” Like literally all human beings in the history of humanity, they have. The segment ends in less than 3 minutes.

SEGMENT 3: Somebody arrives on set to sell beauty or skin care products. During one episode I learn that there are more cases of skin cancer on the left sides of American’s bodies due to sun damage incurred while driving. I am happy to learn a thing. The woman who shares this information seems well-spoken and intelligent and overall too good for this show. More about this in Friday’s post.

SEGMENT 4: Celebrity interview. Despite the best efforts of Jane Kaczmarek to be charming and interesting, the hosts do not engage with her and instead interrupt her stories to ask their scripted questions. In the middle of discussion her relationship with Bryan Cranston, Jane K. is interrupted by Sara Gilbert, who says, “Ok, I need you to tell me about your guest starring role on USA, which sounds amazing.” Jane K. complies. Chen interrupts again with another question unrelated to the discussion. These segments drag badly; halfway through Katherine Heigl’s interview, I type in my notes file: OH MY GOD HOW LONG IS AN HOUR.

SEGMENT 5: I am watching during food festival week, so every episode ends on a cooking segment. The segments begin with an enormous spread of food, which is named but then never described, distributed, consumed, or discussed in any other way. Food is there to provide words for talking. The chef hustles through an abridged version of a recipe, while Julie Chen, who is singularly unqualified to operate kitchen tools, tries to help, and spends most of her time physically recoiling from oil with such fear that one suspects she is part-duck and once had duck relatives in the Gulf. I realize I’m making it sound like a lot of things happen in the show, but very few things happen, and the non-Chen women, on average, do not utter more than six or seven sentences per episode.

SEGMENT 6: The show is over. You sit quietly for a few minutes hating yourself.

Recently, J. Robert Lennon wrote about how cliché is not just representative of lazy thought, but can be a political act that “disrespects the integrity of the individual.” The Talk is not just a cliché-friendly environment, but in its determined emptiness it is cliché exclusive; one never gets any sense that the show intends to say anything you haven’t heard before. Throughout, applause happens. Smiles happen. Lifelike laughter happens. Words happen. A ticker on the bottom of the screen scrolls tweets from women repeating platitudes like, “we have to learn to live together,” and “no parent should outlive there [sic] children” and everywhere there are words but none of them mean anything and nobody cares.

Check back Friday for further discussion of The Talk, empowerment, inspiration, and the economy of  insecurity.  

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.