A lot of female ensemble summer shows aim for trashy fun, but aren’t really willing to go the extra, ugly mile. ABC’s Mistresses of a few years ago comes to mind, as it shot for scandalous and landed on tame. Maybe the restrictions of broadcast TV prevented shows like that one from going full-on trashy diva. But VH1’s Daytime Divas shows no such restraint.
Which is not surprising, since DD comes to us from the mind of Star Jones, who knows a thing or two about ladies grappling with ladies on TV. She was one of the most contentious members ever on The View, Barbara Walters’ daytime TV series that kicked off a whole new genre of women sitting around a table talking (currently inhabited by that show and The Talk). Post-View, Jones wrote Satan’s Sisters, a thinly fictionalized account of her former job, which she has now morphed into this series. It’s like diva turned up to 11: If you’re here for the fancy clothes, issues, scandals, insults, and catfights, you are definitely watching the right television program.
Unlike in most shows of this ilk, each woman involved has not only an issue or a potential conflict but also several plot points. Some of these fare better than others. Best is Heather (Fiona Gubelmann), the Elisabeth Hasselbeck stand-in as the lone conservative. Heather has a possible 50 Shades relationship going on with her husband as well as a child struggling with gender identity. What’s refreshing about Heather is that her faith causes her to embrace, not reject, her child’s identity: If her child was assigned a male gender at birth but identifies as a girl, then that’s what she is, because that’s the way God set it up. Her husband is less convinced about this transition, which offers a more interesting conflict than your typical cable drama.
Heather’s story is a standout because both of her plotlines are fairly unusual on today’s cable TV. Her co-stars suffer by comparison. Kibby (Chloe Bridges) is a former child actress in the Lindsay Lohan vein, complete with a drug problem and a mother who parties as much as she does. Nina (Camille Guaty) is an award-winning journalist who has conception problems, a politician husband, and a possible love interest on the side. Best of all is Mo, the “stir-the-pot” player, portrayed by veteran actress Tichina Arnold, who hasn’t had a part this good since Everybody Hates Chris. She dives gleefully into Mo’s most outlandish machinations, including a combination struggle for power/affair with an inferior on the show.
As co-hosts easily get rotated off and on, all of these women are vying for power, revolving around where they stand in the eyes of Maxine, the Barbara Walters-esque alpha diva. It’s Vanessa Williams in bitchy mode again, as we’ve seen with A Diva’s Christmas Carol and Ugly Betty. But it’s a role that suits her perfectly, so it’s fun to watch as Maxine becomes downright diabolical, pulling strings behind the scenes, as her four puppets are so easily malleable.
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On Daytime Divas, more is definitely more: Anywhere the show can pile on the drama, it does so. Kibby isn’t just going to fall off the wagon; she’s going to have a drug-fueled three-way. When Maxine has a health scare, the four remaining stars aren’t just going to fight over her role on the show; they’re going to do it while standing over her hospital bed. Mo isn’t just going to have sex with the underling; she’s going to do it in her boss’ chair, on camera. The situations get so outlandish that they breed anticipation along with a slight bit of trepidation: How low are these ladies willing to go?
Especially since, in an unlikely turn of events, there’s something to like about each of them. Kibby is fucked-up but appealingly vulnerable. Nina is obnoxiously pretentious but seems to have the show’s best interests at heart. Mo is probably the most reprehensible character, but Arnold makes her a blast to watch. Heather is sanctimonious, but her love for her children makes her impossible to hate. Any two of these characters can get shuffled together into an explosive situation, and even in the first few episodes, often do.
A few men show up on Daytime Divas, like Maxine’s dishy adopted son, and Nina’s and Heather’s nondescript spouses, but they barely make a ripple. They’re not supposed to; the show isn’t about them. It’s about how much bullshit women have to climb through to get to the top of their respective professions: Maxine may be the queen of her show, but she still has to kowtow to the male network suit who starts babysitting after the set has too many explosions. It’s almost a relief that these women aren’t really supporting each other or seeing each other through the tough times, a setup we’ve seen a bizillion times before; everyone is out for themselves, because they know that’s the only way they’ll make it to their heralded positions. (And look at the template: Do any women on The View even hint at genuine friendship? Or do they talk as much smack as possible to get as much airtime as possible?) The closest female relationship on the show is Maxine and her current favorite, Kibby, but as the other women point out, they’ve all been in that favorite position under her wing. It doesn’t last for long, but it’s fascinating to watch the women’s social positions as they rise and fall. Maxine claims that she created her show to promote acceptance for all women, like the body-positive bathing suit episode that kicks off the series. It’s a message she keeps trying to push, even as the conflicts she orchestrates behind the scenes display anything but.
Daytime Divas isn’t going to make you think, and you probably won’t consider it for a single nanosecond after it’s over. But for turn-your-brain off, entertaining summer fluff, it perfectly fits the bill, like the trashiest reality show with a better, flashier script.