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Julie Chen’s Defiant, Awkward Return to TV on ‘Big Brother’ (Column)

The host has been absent from 'The Talk' but returned to her reality-show gig.

Julie Chen has been gone from one of her two on-air CBS gigs all week. As the new season of daytime chatfest “The Talk” has dealt with, among other news topics, the fallout from Chen’s husband and former CBS Corporation CEO Leslie Moonves’ departure from the network amid sexual assault allegations, Chen has been noticeably missing. Her cohosts have spent time discussing the Moonves story in often-harsh terms. That Chen has absented herself from the impossible position of defending her husband has been framed by them as an understandable decision to spend time with family makes sense. It was, perhaps, the only choice she might have made.

But as “The Talk” grinds on with plenty of remaining hosts to make up for Chen’s absence, “Big Brother,” oddly, demands her presence. The reality series, hosted by Chen since its inception, relies on Chen’s particular skillset — notably her unflappability and mechanical delivery, one that’s historically been impossible to shake free from the script even in the face of disruption. (Not for nothing has Chen been lovingly termed, by fans, “Chenbot.”) Chen’s first appearance on television since Moonves’ ignominiously leaving CBS earlier this week was a testament to her poise, control, and refusal, for now, to spend time acknowledging her proximity to scandal. It was a strangely normal performance, one that served to indicate, perhaps, one more way in which the Moonves story will have a longer tail than is easy or comfortable for viewers at home.

Chen’s mien during the episode was typically dialed-in and focused on the fairly ludicrous world of “Big Brother’s” hermetically-sealed house. Chen’s first words to the public were “With less than two weeks left, the game is kicking into hyperdrive”; her introductory monologue to the live episode included her sort-of catchphrase, “But first” (given a spotlight with the hashtag #ButFirst” shown onscreen). Given the microphone, a contestant told Chen “if no one’s told you yet, you’re amazing.” After the same contestant was kicked off the show, necessitating an interview with Chen, the host said, “Let me pay you back the compliment. You look gorgeous tonight. But let’s talk about the game.”

Locked in the house, the contestants had no reason to know about the turmoil affecting the network on which they appear and the family of their host. Which made it a perfect soft comeback for Chen, and an eerie parallel with the face she’s putting forward. Chen had previously issued a notionally definitive statement on her husband, pledging support to the man she called “a kind, decent and moral human being,” before a second New Yorker piece by Ronan Farrow, published last weekend, sealed his fate. “I will stand by that statement today, tomorrow, forever,” she said on “The Talk” in July.

On “Big Brother,” she’s not forced to face down whether or not she stands by that statement. She’s alone on the stage, not with her “Talk” cohosts, who, this week, have distanced themselves from Moonves and condemned his alleged actions, at times in harsh terms. (Cohost Sharon Osbourne, this week, referred to a “diplomatic” previous statement supporting Moonves as the result of a specific request, and not a statement she would make today.) Then the frank talk about each host’s thoughts on the news of the day rolled on to another topic, without Chen along for the ride. Notably, she was absent from promotions, aired during “Big Brother,” promoting “The Talk’s” new season.

That Chen is taking time away from “The Talk” to spend with her family has been framed, by her fellow panelists on the show, as a logical choice, as the often-personal discussion that the show trades in is, for now, impossible. And her return to “Big Brother” makes a sort of sense. But as an ongoing conversation about Moonves’s reign at CBS continues to shed light on his tactics and his alleged misdeeds, it becomes impossible to avoid feeling that Chen’s unruffled presence is awkward and odd. She’s under no obligation to apologize for her husband, but her dual roles—as panelist on a show whose point is disclosure and as solo host of a show that demands stoicism and stillness—present her two paths to follow, ones that grow increasingly impossible to follow at once. If Chen is someday to return to “The Talk,” that prospect seems farther away now than ever. Her one nod to the turmoil in her life was signing off from “Big Brother” as “Julie Chen Moonves,” a name she hadn’t used when signing on and hasn’t generally throughout her career. That name, defiantly used, feels, for now, unwelcome in any setting that demands introspection, and antithetical to any path forward for Chen but painful silence.

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