There’s a certain titillation factor that comes from juicy exposés disguised as fiction.
In 2011, Star Jones, the erstwhile host of The View, wrote a book called Satan’s Sisters… A Novel of Fiction about the behind the scenes drama on a daytime talk show. I mean, they do say write what you know.
Jones, who openly discussed being fired from the ABC talk show in 2006, certainly wants us to connect the dots between her real-life experiences and these fictional ones. So it’s almost impossible to watch Daytime Divas, which is based on the book, without wondering if host Maxine Robinson, so deliciously played by Vanessa Williams, is a stand-in for Barbara Walters. Is Tichina Arnold’s brash, take-no-prisoners comic, Mo, a veiled reference to Joy Behar? Is the uptight, conservative Heather (Fiona Gubelmann) supposed to be Elisabeth Hasselbeck? Is serious journalist Nina (Camille Guaty) Lisa Ling? You can get through the premiere episode just entertaining these thoughts. I definitely spent far too much time trying to figure out if Kibby (Chloe Bridges), a hard-partying child-star with an awful mother, was supposed to remind us of Lindsay Lohan, or if there was something about Debbie Matenopoulos I didn’t know.
The daytime TV landscape is ripe for this kind of behind-the-scenes soap opera. Over the years, the off-camera tiffs have become public. I never watched Live with Kelly and Michael, but I definitely knew how mad Kelly Ripa was to be left in the dark when Michael Strahan announced he would be leaving the show. And The View itself spun ratings gold with the off-air and on-air spats between co-hosts. Who can forget when the show actually went split-screen when Rosie O’Donnell and Hasselbeck got into a heated debate in 2007? Al Roker knew what a sycophant Billy Bush was long before the Donald Trump tapes came out. He had no tolerance for Bush defending Ryan Lochte last summer. I never saw any of these arguments when they happened live, but in the age of You Tube, Twitter and countless entertainment websites, I didn’t need to. These real-life dramas often play out like soap operas, too.
So it’s not like I thought there was a love fest going on at The View, or at any other show, for that matter. But once the titillation factor wears off, Daytime Divas has to stand on its own to be successful. Maxine, Mo, Heather, Nina and Kibby host The Lunch Hour, a hugely successful daytime talk show where everyone is vying for Maxine’s job and the audience’s attention. In the premiere, Maxine undergoes plastic surgery (something she claims never to have done) and falls into a life-threatening coma. Her co-hosts are concerned for her health, yes, but they’re more interested in who’ll sit in the coveted left chair when the show returns without Maxine.
Maxine is a not-too-distant cousin of Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty and a pitch-perfect one for Williams. She excels at playing divas while still making them seem vulnerable and human. The show has a lot of fun satirizing the industry. When Maxine’s son, who is also the producer of The Lunch Hour, complains that the network president is up his ass, Maxine replies, “He’s a network president—up in asses is where he’s most comfortable.” And it doesn’t shy away from commenting on how the industry treats women: “ABC had ‘The View,’ and I quote, ‘How many more yapping women do we need on TV?’”
The cast is strong (Arnold, in particular, is so much fun to watch). There are also extramarital affairs, on set hook-ups, and a dysfunctional marriage. At the end of the second episode available for review, Kristen Johnston appears as someone from Maxine’s past who could cause trouble. (On TV, no one from your past just shows up to say hi and check in.)
Jones, who serves as executive producer of the series, will guest star in an upcoming episode. As will Joy Behar, Sunny Hostin, Jedediah Bila and Sara Haines, who are the current hosts of The View. Tamera Mowry-Housley, host of The Real, cameos in the premiere. The show clearly wants to be able to mock the daytime talk show platform and also be friends with it.
If the show can maintain that tricky balance, while remaining entertaining and fun, Daytime Divas could be your perfect summer escape.
Daytime Divas premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on VH1.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .