Meghan McCain’s announcement that she is, this month, ending her four-year tenure as a panelist on “The View” represents a potentially radical change in the dynamic of the venerable talk show. And — like everything else that’s happened on the show since spring 2020 — it was met with somewhat muted reaction on the show’s virtual set.
The chat show’s dynamic has, since March of last year, been set off-kilter by the necessity of taping remotely; a show that, historically, had drawn crackling electricity from its hosts sharing the same room was suddenly turned into just another Zoom. To hear McCain tell it, her decision to leave the show was shaped by the COVID-era mandates — she moved her family to the Washington, D.C., area and doesn’t want to leave to return to New York, where “The View” is normally produced. This is understandable — as would be a reluctance to continue on with a show where, on all sides, conversation has evidently broken down over the course of the past year-plus.
What’s been lost on “The View” in its remote-taping era isn’t debate, really — it’s good debate. The show literally makes its name on framing the political in personal terms, and a certain degree of cut-and-thrust in strongly-felt debate is nothing new. Too often over the past year-plus, though, McCain in particular was at the center of arguments that verged so far beyond professional disagreement as to be discomfiting. There was a sort of vicarious embarrassment to watching co-workers who, deprived of the camaraderie that necessarily comes with sharing physical space, seemed to have forgotten how to speak to one another, all on a show that seemed most interested in egging them on. The most famous fight in “The View’s” history, between Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck in 2007, culminated in a split-screen showing both conversation partners; for the past many months, every conversation has been in split-screen, allowing derision, in particular between conservative McCain and liberal comedian Joy Behar to bleed through the screen.
None of this was in evidence in McCain’s on-camera announcement of her departure, which was conducted in careful, even tones; McCain thanked the “strong, brilliant, intelligent broadcasters” whom she’d worked aside, and her frequent foil Behar credited McCain with being “no snowflake.”
This much rang true — even critics of McCain, who early in her career tended to deflect counterarguments by relying on her youth and family name, can acknowledge that she managed to stick it out in an omni-directionally hostile environment. But it’s an open question as to what was accomplished, especially in the final year of her tenure. “The View” is not so very different from other programming that’s packaged as news — its purpose is to excite the pulse with invective. The only difference, perhaps, is that “The View” is honest about framing its debates as clashes rooted in something beyond policy disagreement. McCain, in her announcing her departure, implored the media to cover “The View” for its politics and not its interpersonal chaos. The point is fair in some particulars, but it’s also a bit hard to take, coming as it does from someone who, just last month, told a co-worker “I don’t care that you don’t care!” Elsewhere, the backbiting and caustic sarcasm exchanged between Behar and McCain has perhaps not been as newsworthy as their positions on the issues. But it also made those positions difficult to discern, as one first had to get through a level of snideness in the air that obscured everything else.
Basic respect seemed to have broken down. Speaking directly to camera rather than to one another and an in-person audience, the co-hosts veered into a place that wasn’t even good TV. McCain, who’d made a burgeoning career out of striking a careful balance between speaking her mind and telling off her colleagues, seemed to have trouble finding the right note in this moment, and the rest of the “View” cohort had no interest in helping her find it.
There’s something sorrowful about where “The View” is at this moment (even as the rest of the episode on which McCain announced her departure kept up the rigorously polite tone). The show was created as a venue for sharing a diversity of opinions. But up until effectively today, the COVID era of the show has seen very few intelligible opinions emerge, beyond the opinions the hosts seem to hold of one another. It’s little wonder McCain is opting out. But maybe a return to the studio for the rest of the hosts, and for whatever new personality replaces McCain, will bring about a new era in which opinions are argued forcefully, and allowed to stand for themselves. The split-screen eye rolls can stay on Zoom where they belong, and an audience can be allowed back into a show that too often has felt like it’s playing out only for the hosts’ benefit.