She’s Back

09.15.14 5:25 PM ET

Rosie Returns to 'The View': A Bold, Intelligent, and Sometimes Boring Premiere

The second coming of Rosie O’Donnell makes for a smarter View, with Rosie Perez, Nicolle Wallace, and Whoopi Goldberg along for the new season. But is ‘smart’ also entertaining?

The bitch is back.

At least that’s what we’ve been promised, right?

Based on the lead-up to Monday’s season premiere of a brand new, Barbara Walters-less The View, you’d have thought Rosie O’Donnell had sent a house to fall on Jenny McCarthy and Sherri Shepherd to make way for her highly touted return. TV fans salivated at the idea of O’Donnell returning to the outlet where she was at her most explosive (and therefore most captivating) all those years ago when she famously warred with Elisabeth Hasselbeck before quitting the show.

A big Variety cover previewing her View comeback could easily have been press material for American Horror Story: Coven—there’s a storm brewing, the cover seemed to say, and the Wicked Witch of Daytime was the one conjuring it. (This is not, of course, to disparage O’Donnell at all. Lest we forget, the Wicked Witch was always the most complex, misunderstood, intelligent, and most fun to watch character in The Wizard of Oz.)

But something strange happened when O’Donnell returned to the table, this time sitting alongside veteran moderator Whoopi Goldberg, actress Rosie Perez, and longtime Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace. Forget everything you used to know or expect from The View, a show famous for its cacophonous squawking, uncomfortable vacillation between serious news and tips for bra shopping, impossible to decipher bickering, and hosts who think the world is flat.

The conversation this time—which spanned Ray Rice and domestic abuse, whether Hillary Clinton should pander to women in the upcoming election, and why Robin Williams’s suicide spotlights the need to destigmatize mental illness—was jarringly serious. The debate was measured, ordered. Everyone waited for their turn to talk, and when they spoke—brace yourself—their opinions were thoughtfully constructed and well-informed.

“Some things never change,” Goldberg said early on in the episode, “and that’s great conversations with great women.” And that’s certainly true. The debate was as diverse and the opinions as passionately held as ever.

But after so many years of vilifying Elisabeth Hasselbeck for her extreme conservative points of views, lampooning the harpy nature of the panel’s clucking hens, and clamoring for a roundtable of smart and respected hosts who never posed for Playboy, this current View is almost unrecognizable. Yes, we got everything we thought we wanted in a new View. But now we should wonder whether we should have wanted it in the first place. Because this respectable, illuminating View was also—let’s face it—kind of boring.

As it turns out, The View is, first and foremost, a TV show. Does anyone want to watch an intelligent The View?

Cautiously, after this first hour, we’ll say yes. First, because it was so refreshing—transfixing, almost, in the surprise of it all—to watch an entire episode of the show that was so civilized and on which everyone was so thoughtful. Second, while the premiere carried an atypically serious tone (and, my god, was this hour so damned serious), there were hints of the whimsy, wily mischief, and godforsaken insanity that have made this show something to love all these years, and inspired so many, as Goldberg rightly noted, blatant rip-offs.

The premiere began, for example, with an utterly ridiculous skit that had the new cast bowing down and kissing the hand of Barbara Walters, who then gave them her blessing. This skit was fantastic for several reasons, including the fact that Barbara Walters was so blatantly not in the same room as the hosts when they were shooting this and they were using a body double, and second because it really is a gift to us all when Barbara Walters is asked to act. It is glorious in its stilted awkwardness, and should be cherished.

A brand new set was then unveiled as Goldberg welcomed us to the new season. (O’Donnell reportedly had the entire studio moved to a new location in New York City because she thought the old one was drab and dusty.) The new set was orange and teal and much more intimate than recent iterations, returning to the idea these hosts are supposed to be part of the conversation with women, not performing a conversation in front of women.

But if anyone was wondering if O’Donnell’s demeanor would be different this time around—or, at least different from the demeanor that’s been exacerbated in the press—the answer was immediate when the comedian began the show sitting barefoot and cross-legged on her chair, clearly at ease. Of course, some things never change, which is a wonderful thing as O’Donnell revealed (and revealed and revealed) that she was going to be as gung-ho about oversharing as ever, talking about her sciatica and showing off her pedicure and everything from her new marriage to her weight loss.

Some people may think we wanted O’Donnell back on The View because she’s not afraid to be combative when she believes in something, and that’s certainly true. But related to that, and the real reason she’s so great, is that she’s not afraid to reveal anything and everything about herself if she thinks that it’s in the interest of making a point. And make a point she does, often, and always with the sense of humor we’ve come to love. She’s great on this show because she’s vulnerable, open, smart, and funny, in a way that no other host has managed to replicate.

As for her new host-mates, Perez was clearly nervous, stuttering occasionally and losing track of her train of thought as she spun stories. But when she came out with a zinger, they were great, and she showed hints of the sassiness that people were probably hoping she’d bring to the table. With more comfort and more time, that will likely come out more.

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And Wallace is likely to be the breakout star of this season. For one, a lot of attention is always paid to the View host who has the opposing view, which, as is customary on this show, is the Republican one. But there’s a warmth and easiness in the way that Wallace tells her stories and states her opinions that makes her instantly appealing. She has the same self-awareness that makes O’Donnell so relatable, which will no doubt continue to be refreshing when she talks about her political party’s more ridiculous clowns—people that the likes of Hasselbeck and McCarthy almost always had blanket, hard-to-watch defenses of. An “Ask Me Anything” segment that had her divulging the stories behind some of the most controversial moments of her time with the Bush White House was easily the most entertaining of the premiere.

Goldberg, however, is the same. A brand new panel has clearly hardly fazed her, because the appeal of Whoopi Goldberg is that you get the idea that it would take a bomb going off underneath her seat to even make her blink. She’s the same blend of silliness, seriousness, and what the hell am I even doing here? that’s made her the perfect moderator all this time. The first thing out of her mouth when giving an update about her life might be about a joke about a fart, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to be earnest and steadfast when the segment transitions to a conversation about child abuse.

Yes, there was a conversation about child abuse. And one about domestic abuse. And depression. And suicide. And then, when that was all done, a segment about all the celebrities we lost over the summer. The episode ended with a tribute to Joan Rivers that left Rosie O’Donnell sobbing. This was a serious episode of The View, guys.

But they all won’t be. And when they’re not—when they’re the ludicrous and inane segments that love and also dread from The View—it’s kind of a comfort, and even exciting, that these four very intelligent, very congenial women with an abundance of respect for each other are going to be the ones helming it.

The bitch is back, sure, if you want to reduce O’Donnell’s return to that. But so is a watchable The View.