Thursday, October 2, 2014

Irony, stereotypes hamper initial 'We Need to Talk'

With a starting lineup big enough for a football team (there were 11 women on the set), "We Need to Talk," had a lot going for it.

Unfortunately, it was a little much. 

The hourlong show that made its debut Tuesday had too many voices, which meant not enough time to develop some topics and precious little time to follow up on the compelling information that was shared.

At the same time, even with all those personalities, it was missing something -- most notably some honesty and gravitas. 

Plus, the show was heavy on unintentional irony. (Or, it was a sad commentary on how we treat women in sports broadcasting.)

It's great that CBS Sports Network has launched the show and seems willing to make a commitment to it. It's also great that enough talent exists (notably Dana Jacobson, Andrea Kremer and Amy Trask) to drive the program.

Still, the women were only partially put in a position to succeed during the crowded debut.

It started at the start, when the first face viewers saw was that of Lesley Visser, the deservedly Hall of Fame-caliber reporter and women's broadcasting pioneer. Unfortunately, she no longer looks like the Lesley Visser many viewers know, thanks to an obvious facelift. 

There's nothing wrong with that (just ask Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or any number of women in broadcasting, movies and television). It's ironic, though, that on a show meant to give women a better, deserved platform to discuss topics that the first person viewers really heard from was someone who had shown the work (literally) of trying to look younger to keep her spot on TV.

In terms of content and form, the show will hopefully find a rhythm with fewer participants each week. Along with that should come standing segments and a sense of how it wants to develop.

Among the other initial opening-week ironies was the studio setup itself.

In the first block, all of the women were in their spots at three subsets (table, couch, high-top table), with only one group at work at a time. So, a show designed in part to get women out of the background consistently had women in the background for the first quarter of the broadcast. It just seemed silly.

There was compelling content -- including Lisa Leslie talking about being a victim of domestic abuse and Swin Cash sharing her own story but disagreeing how publicly victims should share their stories. That was probably one of the highlights. It felt honest and unscripted.

Such interaction might be more consistent once the show develops standing segments and, more importantly, finds a host.

All 11 women will not participate from week to week (a good thing) but the show needs someone to direct traffic and keep things moving. That should be a different someone from whomever gets the position as the show-ending commentator or essayist. 

Simply put, the product will get better once the 11 participants find their roles. After all, no football team has 11 quarterbacks, 11 left tackles or 11 tight ends. An ever-changing, free-form approach will not work. Nor will it be good TV.

Finally, the show ended with the biggest piece of silliness that some member of the proven, professional and smart team on-air participants should've known to nix. 

After an OK and timely discussion about the NFL and its annual cancer awareness efforts with players and stadiums adorned with all kinds of pink items to show support, Kremer pointed out that October is also domestic violence awareness month, a cause that uses purple instead of pink ribbons. Maybe, she suggested, the NFL should allow players to wear purple this month, if they want, in order to bring additional attention to the matter.

It was not the most hard-hitting topic, but it did not need to be. Especially for a league so concerned with player appearance and the look of the on-field product, it was at least thought provoking.

Unfortunately, as the show went off the air, all 11 women were back, each with a ribbon in hand and they stood there, side by side, pinning the ribbons on each other. That was pure silliness -- which felt like teenagers getting ready for the high school prom, or sorority members completing a membership rite. 

It just looked juvenile, and the women who earned their spots on the show and have proven themselves during their careers deserved better. 

The shame is at least one of them (several with years of TV experience) should've had a sense of what it would look like. Maybe they did not, which is not a good thing after all those years of work. Or, even worse, maybe they did know and were not able to overrule the director and producer who wanted that specific shot.