I don't know if you know this, but CBS has gone out of its way to create this alternate universe where the only network on TV that anybody cares about or talks about is CBS. They have their own magazine that's all about CBS programming (and programming on networks affiliated with CBS, like Showtime and The CW). Their daytime and late-night programming is relentlessly devoted toward pimping other CBS shows. And on their new clone of The View, The Talk, the network has the women on the panel only discuss shows on CBS. (So far as I can tell, the only mention of a show on another network comes when Sara Gilbert mentions Roseanne, a show that debuted 22 years ago on this date.) It's kind of creepy and just a little weird, but there you have it.
What's weird about this strategy is that CBS isn't especially devoted toward its particular brand of dominance outside of the primetime lineup. In primetime, the network is absolutely ruthless, demolishing up and coming shows by simply moving its own biggest hits around. At this point, CSI has outlasted everything anyone has thrown up against it. Hell, when it was moved to Thursdays, the big show it was taking on was Friends, and it's survived a similar challenge to its dominance from Grey's Anatomy. But this ruthless approach doesn't extend to the other dayparts (and God, I hate that I know that word). The network is pleased with the solid, but not spectacular, performance of David Letterman in late night. It seems happy with Katie Couric constantly coming in last in the primetime news race. Its morning show rarely does much up against the other two morning shows, and its soaps, while generally stronger in the ratings than other soaps, continue to follow the path of all soaps, which is into outright oblivion.
So this is why it's so weird to see the show coming up with such a direct competitor for another network's show. The Talk is The View, CBS-ified and stuck in the afternoon, instead of the morning. The opening of the show assumes that we've been anxiously anticipating the show's debut, that all we've been able to think about since we first heard of it is when Julie Chen and her merry band of pranksters would be coming to the airwaves every day. The show literally wastes ten minutes of screen time on building its own creation myth, complete with CBS stations of the cross, including a talk with Harry Smith and a blessing from David Letterman. All along, I was wondering just who the hell would be this excited for a CBS version of The View, until I realized that the typical CBS viewer has probably HEARD of The View, but has no idea how to navigate over to ABC because they lost the remote control years ago or never figured out how to operate it in the first place.
This is not to suggest that The Talk is a bad show. It's just a completely non-essential show. Two summers ago, I had the occasion to spend about a week with my grandmother, who watches a lot of daytime TV. Daytime TV, particular daytime talk shows, has always struck me as vaguely creepy. It projects a sense of community, but it never seems terribly aware of the fact that the community it's pitching is wholly imaginary. As the women in the audience on TV cheer excitedly for whatever the hosts do next, we're supposed to feel that we are a part of this virtual gang, but we're not, not really. We're sitting alone in our living rooms, and it's a nice day outside, and maybe there's a chicken in the oven or something. (I dunno. My grandma makes a lot of chicken.) Daytime talk shows seem so obsessively interested in telling you that you're not alone that all they do is remind you of the fact that you actually are, physically, alone, watching TV, no matter how many friends or family members you might have.
The Talk is so ensconced in this viewpoint that it eventually wins even skeptics over. Early in the hour, Julie Chen talks about how everybody needs their girlfriends, and I scoffed at the idea that I somehow needed my girlfriends to exist within the television set. Yet by the end of the episode, I was laughing along with the ladies in the TV. They had reached out to me and made me feel loved! I would never have to change the channel from CBS again! (Also, I loved Big Brother.) Part of this was the repartee between the women on the show, which felt forced, but in the typical way of first-time talk shows, where everybody wants everything to go JUST RIGHT and hasn't yet realized that the most fun talk shows are the ones where things go horribly wrong from time to time, drew viewers in. But part of it was just the fact that CBS had seen another successful show, studied it curiously, then sucked the life force out of it and made it its own thing.
Like all other CBS programs, The Talk is ruthlessly competent. Nothing about it strays too far from the template because the template is solid, so why would we ever need anything else? The show's panel consists of Chen, Gilbert, Leah Remini, Holly Robinson Peete, Marissa Jaret Winokur, and Sharon Osbourne. Whereas The View has always been most successful when it breaks the various women on its panel down into assorted "types," The Talk hasn't even begun this process, mostly just assuming that the sight of a bunch of vaguely famous people talking over each other will be entertaining to the audience. There's something of an attempt to make Sharon the "racy" one, but with this many people involved in the show (plus the special guest), no one gets any time to break out. It makes everything feel about as bland as possible, but that's likely a plus for the network.
The women had Christie Brinkley on for the premiere, and they spent much of their time talking with her about her divorce from Peter Cook, how great she looks at her age, her daughter's musical career, and Spanx. None of this was bad, exactly, but it was glib and substance-free. I get that that's part of the purpose of daytime talk shows, but The View has always been at its most popular when it's attempted to be ABOUT something beyond just gabbing about celebrities and stuff. The Talk is, of course, a very young show, so maybe it will reach this point soon enough, but it seems far more likely that this is TV for people who are terrified of anything approaching conflict or real discussion breaking out on screen. (Further lending credence to this theory: Gilbert doesn't get to mention her long-time girlfriend, TV writer Allison Adler, beyond a few obscure mentions of "family" and "Ali," despite the two's children appearing on screen.) Furthermore, the show uses such random combinations of the women at any given moment that none of them are given time to develop a personality. Five of them (everybody but Marissa) are there at the start. Three of them interview Brinkley. Then all six of them are there at the end.
The episode ends with a segment where Marissa goes out and talks to real moms about how they talk to their kids about sex (obviously playing off of the show's name), and it's all cute and glossy, like a magazine you might flip through at the waiting room of a pediatrician's office. (Incidentally, when Chen previewed this segment at the start of the show, she said she'd talk about "how to talk to your kids about sex," and I heard "I'll talk to your kids about sex," which would have been much more entertaining.) In its own way, The Talk is like this, like a Good Housekeeping or Highlights for Children of television, all empty calories and people that look good. That's likely good enough for CBS (and the smiling Les Moonves who drops in to wish them well), but it's doubtful it will win rabid fans who know how to use the remote control.