'Daytime Divas': TV Review
VH1's takeoff on daytime panel shows can't decide on a tone or genre, stranding a strong cast led by Vanessa Williams and Tichina Arnold.
Every procedural has had roughly the same episode set behind the scenes of a popular fictional TV show. The leading man/lady is murdered! The jealous co-stars, frustrated crew and conniving producers are all suspects! One of our intrepid investigators turns out to be a huge fan of the series and uses his or her canonical knowledge to help solve the crime, amid all sorts of winking and nudging about Hollywood superficiality and egos. Castle must have had 10 episodes like this.
Premiering Monday on VH1, Daytime Divas is basically one of those "Let's Snigger at Hollywood" procedural episodes, only without the excitement of a murder, the driving intrigue of an investigation or the reassuring comfort that, after spending 42 minutes in this superficially self-obsessed but ultimately unenlightening world, we'll never have to return.
Over the two episodes made available to critics, Daytime Divas never settles on a tone, never finds anything really interesting to say about its world and only occasionally rises to the level of mediocrity, thanks to a sturdy cast that could probably also have starred in a good version of this premise, had they been given better material.
Daytime Divas was adapted by Amy and Wendy Engelberg from Star Jones' novel Satan's Sisters; it focuses on the behind-the-scenes antics on The Lunch Hour, a fictional popular daytime panel show in the vein of The View and The Talk. Vanessa Williams plays Maxine Robinson, the show's creator and lead host. She's joined by an assortment of archetypes familiar to even the most casual viewers of the genre. There's Mo (Tichina Arnold), a say-anything-for-laughs comic. There's Heather (Fiona Gubelmann), the token Christian conservative. There's Mina (Camille Guaty), the actual investigative journalist. And there's Kibby (Chloe Bridges), a former child star and recovering addict.
Maxine is the show's publicly undisputed on-air queen, but off-air, the other women are all ambitious and harboring secrets that range from completely uninteresting (Mo is sleeping with a PA) to limitedly interesting (Mina is sleeping with a producer who also happens to be Maxine's son) to truly interesting, but in a way the show is unprepared to adequately handle (Heather has a trans daughter, which upsets her abusive husband).
I don't think Daytime Divas wants to be this genre's version of a Sports Night or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or any show Aaron Sorkin would be likely to write — because a show with all of these female characters would surely drain Sorkin's ability to write "Women get easily confused by technology!" jokes in a hurry. So it's probably unfair to expect perceptive media analysis or smart "How the sausage is made" insight into this corner of the entertainment industry.
I also don't want to imply Sorkin actually provided those things in Studio 60 or The Newsroom, just that he intended to. So maybe the first season of UnReal would be the perfect version of what Daytime Divas could be, if that's what it wanted to be. Unfairly hoped for or not, such awareness or realism is absent in Daytime Divas. The show prefers to keep its nitty-gritty observations to "Women on TV have complicated lunch orders" or "Be careful lighting African-Americans with blue gels." It also expects viewers to believe that the divas on a show like this would all get their hair and makeup done in the same room at the same time in a row of chairs only a foot apart. Or that network involvement on a show like this is one pretty executive barking occasional orders into a phone. Whatever.
What Daytime Divas is going for is something closer to entertaining trashiness, but it isn't really that either. None of the sleeping around and backstopping these women are doing is remotely shocking or titillating, and it's all cloaked in VH1's basic cable standards that sanitize the language and sexuality even further. If your characters are backstage saying, "F this!" I'm just not going to be able to take your warts-and-all portrait very seriously. Either find more colorful language or bleep. It's 2017.
It doesn't have to have telenovela-style outlandishness, but in lieu of realism, some more extreme behavior from the women in terms of their backstabbing or aspirations would help. Switching a guest's tip sheet might lead to embarrassment, but not to high drama. Other than the briefest of coma arcs that the show didn't commit to, there was little making me want to watch a second episode and nothing in the second episode to push me to the third. I'm just not that invested in who gets the left chair.
Also, there's nothing lamer than a roman a clef that can't even bring itself to be a roman a clef. Like once we're all assuming Heather's character is Elisabeth Hasselbeck, you either let us have the vicarious amusement of imagining that's who she is or else you cover your ass by saying the real Hasselbeck exists in your show's universe, but the second option is lame. There's absolutely zero fun to be had from watching Daytime Divas and wondering who the characters are based on if the show is being disingenuous about its influences. Oh and when it comes to real-world cameos, I know bigger names are promised for later episodes, but as far as the first two episodes go, it's basically Tamera Mowry.
So Daytime Divas is missing realism and perspective, and it's missing tawdry soapiness. It also isn't sure if it's a comedy. It's definitely not a satire, but it could still be generally funny. You have to work hard to make a spectacularly high-energy performer like Arnold unfunny, and although Arnold gets moments, she feels shackled by playing a character who's supposed to be constantly off-the-cuff, but only in a very scripted way. Anybody who has watched Arnold on TV before knows it shouldn't be that hard just to let her run wild.
The writers are also taking very little initial advantage of the queen-bee viciousness we've seen Williams deliver on Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives. So far, her performance is only polished exterior, and I'm just not going to watch enough to see the claws come out. Bridges and Gubelmann probably get the best beats in the early episodes because their roles, one-dimension types though they may be, are the more detailed of the types and the easiest to illustrate. It's not Guaty's fault that depicting a "serious journalist" is close to impossible on a show like this.
Beyond these problems in tone, substance and proper cast usage is the visually unappealing look of Daytime Divas. The backstage set is limited and unrealistic, and the directors feel tentative in using it. It's one thing not to give into the cliche of Goodfellas-style tracking shots through the studio, but there's no spatial awareness or detail. And there should be ample visible detail because I've rarely seen a show so consistently overlit. Maybe this is just an intended contrast to prestige TV's fetishizing of darkness, or maybe it was a contractual requirement from an actual diva in the cast — but you've never seen so many overlit bars, overlit clubs, overlit offices and overlit dressing rooms.
I'd prefer not to get into the other bits of technical ineptitude, like an obligatory women-walk-down-hall-in-slo-mo shot that can't quite fit the actresses into the frame or a peculiar jump cut on Williams' character that speaks only to aesthetic indifference.
With this cast, Daytime Divas could have been a good show about a genre ripe (probably overripe) for exposure or exploration or parody or just campy pleasures. Until it figures out what it wants to be, I won't be checking out any more episodes, unless we get the one with the murder when Castle and Bones and Scully and Mulder and The Closer are brought in to solve the crime.
Cast: Vanessa Williams, Tichina Arnold, Chloe Bridges, Camille Guaty, Fiona Gubelmann, McKinley Freeman
Creators: Amy and Wendy Engelberg
Airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on VH1.