Television: The View At The Top

Three years ago, Barbara Walters created a new kind of daytime show for a new kind of daytime audience. Now the five opinionated women of The View have given morning talk a makeover

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Well, let's say the corner newsstand. The women's good-natured, rowdy jousting in the opening and closing round-table segments makes the show a distinctive treat. But in between is fairly typical daytime-talk fare. The celebrity interviews, which make Walters' pre-Oscars weepfests look cerebral, are generous to a fault. (And how. Vieira once gave Wesley Snipes a lap dance--"after he requested it!" she protests.) There are numerous fashion features--Jones has often shilled her line of wigs--and for every contrarian service piece on "swimsuits for real women" there's a runway show of boobulous Victoria's Secret models. And the round tables aren't exactly World News Tonight. Just like your co-workers at lunch, the hosts shoot from the lip, sometimes with suspect facts. In an Elian Gonzalez segment, Behar likened the Miami standoff to the Cuban missile crisis, where "Cuba blinked." (The Soviet Union, but who's counting?)

Last year the show added Ling after an on-air audition to replace Debbie Matenopoulos, the show's original, notoriously ditzy voice of youth. But in a way, Ling isn't the only new member of the team: Walters has opened up considerably to the show's saucy format. In a discussion of older women's sex appeal, the hosts joke about Walters' making a sex video; she closes the segment saying, "I'm off to make my film!," shimmying and starting to strip off her pink jacket. This is surely a sign of the apocalypse. But she can still be a wet blanket, especially when it comes to trashing celebrities she might want to interview later. "I still have times, and they all know it," she says, "when I'll say, 'Oh, my God, I'll never be able to talk to this person again.'" (It proves the tyranny of celebrity that the most famous interviewer on TV worries about this constantly.) Still, she's got comfortable enough so that there's talk, which she isn't commenting on, that she may give up 20/20 to concentrate on The View.

Walters knows toning down the sass would gut the show. And its freedom to offend has a substantive benefit. The flip side of the cheeky vagina talk is that the hosts haven't let delicacy keep them from doing reproductive-health segments--like "Grill Your Gyno"--with graphic illustrations. It's The View's own vagina monologue: Why should someone who has one not be allowed to say the word?

It was probably the Monica Lewinsky affair, which broke scant months after The View's launch, that confirmed the show's moment had arrived. Suddenly the country was talking about oral sex, semen and adultery in homes and offices. This talk led to hand wringing about "the coarsening of the culture," but it also illustrated the feminist dictum that the personal is political. It demonstrated--just as working women's juggling of job and home life does--that sloppy private matters can't be neatly divorced from public life. From 24-hour news to Politically Incorrect, groups of people arguing took root as the dominant mode of infotainment. The era of mouthing off was on the rise.

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