If every setback is a setup for a comeback, ABC’s talk show The View is positioned to reach its pinnacle of success. Rosie O’Donnell, who returned to the coffee klatsch this year for the first time since her infamous one-season stint in 2007, has announced she’s leaving the show just five months into what was supposed to be The View’s revitalization.
Once a pillar of ABC’s daytime lineup, The View has watched ratings plummet, a result of the show’s dramatic reboot following the mass exodus of some of its most recognizable talent. O’Donnell’s exit follows the departures of creator Barbara Walters and co-hosts Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Sherri Shepherd, and Jenny McCarthy, all of whom left the show within the past two years. The View will be down to only three regulars: moderator Whoopi Goldberg and freshman co-hosts Rosie Perez and Nicolle Wallace. It’s a far cry from The View’s liveliest days, when the addition of a guest host and an appearance by Walters, an intermittent participant, could result in as many as a half-dozen forthright women dissecting controversies and current events. Despite the blood loss, The View can rally if it stops taking its cues from daytime television and embraces its similarity to a primetime cable fixture: Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise.
Like Housewives, The View is fueled by the discord and artifice underlying complex relationships between women. Its mythology is made up of the constantly shifting dynamics between the women, who align themselves anew with every conflict. That’s why The View, like Housewives, can usually tolerate above-average cast churn, and can even thrive as a result of it. Every addition or subtraction offers the opportunity for new allies and enemies, and it drives the behind-the-scenes drama that informs and blurs with the conflict in front of the camera. In a recent example, as reported by Variety, the already prickly View set was thrown into chaos amid reports Perez was planning to leave the show. The scuttlebutt was that the producers were plotting to rejigger the panel to stop the ratings freefall, then aborted the shake-up when O’Donnell intervened to save Perez, a personal friend of hers.
Media reporters have emphasized the significance of The View’s decline as its chief competition, CBS’ The Talk, surges in popularity despite being every bit as generic as its title suggests. It’s natural to compare the two shows, given their similar formats, but to make the comparison as part of a discussion about how The View can right its path is to misapprehend The View’s strengths. The Talk is cut in the mold of traditional daytime television, with its perma-smiling, faux families who only succeed if they can convince viewers they genuinely like each other. Because they are directly competing daytime formats, the media has shoehorned The View and The Talk into the same reversal-of-fortune narrative around NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America, in which the former ceded ground to the latter following the unceremonious firing of Ann Curry in 2012. The View, which approximates scripted reality’s constant cycles of peace and unrest, has never succeeded based on the audience’s perception that these women are best friends.
A YouTube search for The View’s lighter daytime fare, such as its convivial cooking segments or playful audience interactions, is an exercise in futility. What remains of The View are the Housewives-style segments in which the women’s daggers are the sharpest. The most memorable moment is a confrontation between O’Donnell, a liberal strident enough to alienate even those who agree with her, and Hasselbeck, who rattled off Republican talking points with such efficiency she eventually got called up to the bigs: Fox News Channel. Near the end of O’Donnell’s 2007 season, she takes Hasselbeck to task, claiming Hasselbeck failed to come to her defense when right-wing pundits called her anti-war sentiments unpatriotic. Their shouting match escalates as a hush falls over the audience, and not even Behar and Shepherd can cut the tension by comically feigning retreat.
As would be the case in a Housewives episode, the hostility reverberates beyond O’Donnell and Hasselbeck. Alicia Silverstone, who was interviewed following the squabble, burns Hasselbeck when she walks onstage, breezing past her without an acknowledgment only to warmly embrace the other co-hosts. The only thing missing is Hasselbeck’s talking-head reaction.
O’Donnell’s return has brought conflict back to The View, but the conflict isn’t purposeful or rooted in issues and beliefs. It’s just palpable personal animosity between O’Donnell and Goldberg, according to Variety, which reported the two never warmed to each other due to O’Donnell’s expectation of returning to the moderator’s chair. Goldberg occupied the spot after O’Donnell vacated it, and had no intent to cede the role to O’Donnell, triggering a bitter, personal feud. In The View’s most Housewives moment ever, O’Donnell sat for an interview with Real Housewives Of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes, and in a shade-throwing master class, speaks in a faux-reverent tone about Goldberg when she’s actually just taking potshots at Goldberg’s age. The hostility isn’t grounded or fun to watch; it’s two millionaires furtively fighting over toys.
With the right women and shrewd production, hostility serves The View well. Ironically, the closer The View veers towards frivolous Housewives tropes, the more rigorous and effective its hosts are as journalists. At The View’s best, the daily “Hot Topics” discussions are rooted in politics, culture, celebrity, and faith, and like cable pundits, the women filter the loaded subjects through their personal, partisan lenses, never reaching consensus. Without resolution or accord, the rivalries build steam until there’s a release like the O’Donnell-Hasselbeck kerfuffle, or like Goldberg and Behar walking away from Bill O’Reilly during a debate about a proposed Islamic cultural center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. Guests like Silverstone and O’Reilly become ensnared in arguments that long predate their appearances, and the co-hosts relish in interrogating guests who embody the views their rivals on the panel hold most dear. The result is CNN’s Crossfire in sheep’s clothing, and despite The View’s reputation as daytime fluff, its interview segments can be brutally effective. Said Cindy McCain following her View appearance with Senator John McCain during the 2008 election cycle: “They picked our bones clean.”
Someone within ABC has an inkling of The View’s true potential, which explains the decision to hand the show’s management from the network’s daytime division to its news arm. According to Variety, the daytime-to-news transition has resulted in organizational redundancies and gaps that have exacerbated the show’s woes. Like O’Donnell’s rehiring—an overt attempt to recapture the show at its catty, contentious best—it was a well-intentioned move that hasn’t panned out. But hopefully, ABC executives will realize the problem lay in the execution, not the concept, and will resist the urge to build a more harmonious panel.
With another presidential election fast approaching, this is precisely the time to recruit co-hosts opposed in their personal and political passions. (Imagine the fun they’d be having now if McCarthy, a prominent anti-vaccination crusader, were still on the show.) Perez and Wallace, an affable Republican strategist, haven’t been the shot in the arm The View needs. Both women are unfailingly reasonable and measured, and because neither is especially assertive during interviews, they tend to resemble corks bobbing helplessly between Goldberg and O’Donnell’s dueling whirlpools. As was the case at the beginning of this season, the panel is in need of a complete overhaul, with the exception of Goldberg. And while ABC is at it, it should consider reassigning The View again to its alternative programming department rather than news or daily. While it isn’t technically a reality show, The View is most riveting and vital the more it resembles one.