Saturday, 18 August 2018

Red Table Talk is a rare show about Hollywood families that doesn’t focus on dysfunction

Red Table Talk is a rare show about Hollywood families that doesn’t focus on dysfunction
06 Jun

The Smiths are the only family that could make me watch a TV show on Facebook, a platform I’d otherwise like to avoid. They’re interesting, they’re good-looking, they’re funny — and, let’s be honest, I haven’t yet quit the website. In May, Facebook Watch, the social media platform’s burgeoning video on demand arm, introduced Red Table Talk a confessional talk show starring Willow Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jada’s mother Adrienne Banfield-Jones, each weekly episode focusing on various aspects of life like parenting, loss, and body image.

Thus far the show, now five episodes in (out of a planned 10), has provided ample fodder for celebrity gossip blogs. “Jada Pinkett Smith Regrets Dating Will Smith While He Was Married,” People wrote after the premiere episode “Motherhood.” “Jada Pinkett Smith Tears Up Learning Daughter Willow Used to Cut Herself,” E! News wrote after the following episode “Surviving Loss.” But beyond the inevitable curiosity surrounding a show starring one of America’s most famous families, Red Table Talk is a sentimental, sweet series that offers open familial conversations without falling into the contrived overexposure of other celebrity family reality shows.

Ever since Oprah taught TV producers it’s ok — profitable, even — to have people be vulnerable on air if they’re trying to be healed, U.S. TV viewers have been pelted with every manner of confessional reality TV, from the therapy show Iyanla Fix My Life (featuring Oprah protege Iyanla Vanzant) to celebrity-focused iterations like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Viceland’s The Therapist. But on Red Table Talk, instead of an authority stepping in to offer advice, the confessional, therapeutic aspect of the show is how it presents a literal round table conversation with remarkably respectful parties. That’s rare to find on any show, let alone in any group of family members.

But, of course, this isn’t any family. Willow and Jada are world famous, and as Jada and Banfield-Jones brought up in this week’s episode “Growing Up Smith” (featuring Jaden), fame and wealth is all the newest Smith generation has ever known. Additionally, Will and Jada have become known as two of Hollywood’s most open-minded parents, largely due to Willow and Jaden’s reputations for being free-thinking — a little woo woo, too — but overall surprisingly well-adjusted.

These qualities combined make them the perfect candidates for a confessional talk show. They know what they’re getting into by airing their personal struggles to the world, unlike non-famous guests on shows like Dr. Phil and Iyanla. Plus, their veneer of relative well-adjustment lends itself nicely to the show’s generous mission: to foster more communication about shared human experiences. The Smith family’s wholesome cool is the draw of the show, rather than the “look at how crazy this is” quality of celebrity-centered shows like Celebrity Rehab or even Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its predecessor The Osbournes. Red Table Talk is filmed in the middle of the Smiths’ living room, but the spotlight always remains on these three women loving and trusting each other enough to speak honestly about their experiences.

“I haven’t talked about it. It’s not easy to talk about. But I am gonna talk about it.”

Jada Pinkett Smith in the third episode of Red Table Talk

In the first episode, Willow and Banfield-Jones watch as Jada and Will’s ex-wife Sheree Fletcher speak candidly about co-parenting and being in a blended family. As The Washington Post’s Lisa Bono wrote in May, the conversation, in which the two women retread their initial hostility toward each other and discussed how they came to understanding, provided a great example of an experience step-families all over the world go through, told by two people who have gotten the time to work through the conflicts. In getting to see Willow’s response to the video (she admits she never knew the extent of their disagreements on parenting and boundaries), Jada and viewers bear witness to the ineffectiveness of hiding “adult stuff,” as Jada calls it, from children. “I was always kind of seeing the edges of what was really going on,” Willow says, admitting she could feel but didn’t fully understand the tension between her mother and her father’s first wife. “Looking in hindsight, you guys could feel it anyways so we might as well have had a discussion about it,” Jada concludes.

In the much-publicized “Surviving Loss” episode, in which Willow reveals she self-harmed for a short time after taking a break from her music career, Jada models the respect and openness that allows her daughter to make such disclosures to her mother. She begins to tear up, admitting she never noticed any signs of depression in Willow. But rather than expressing her sadness in excoriation or judgment, as many parents would do, she simply absorbs Willow’s statement and gives her room to expand on it, leading to a brief discussion on how youth depression and self-harm was dealt with in Jada and Banfield-Jones’s generations. (It wasn’t.)

There are times, too, in the show when it seems like the Smith women are holding back. In that same episode, Jada speaks about the trauma of violently losing her friend Tupac. While she almost addresses the speculation media outlets engage in about nature of their relationship, Jada instead steps back and focuses on her feelings of grief. Later, in the episode “Body Confessions! Jada Tells All at the Table,” Willow, who talks about dealing with insecurities with her body, mentions that her father Will once told her “he was just so happy that, you know, I wasn’t curvy because guys look at girls.” Her mother and grandmother go on to tell Willow that “there are so many people that would die for that body.” Willow looks uncomfortable and sighs; her hesitation to elaborate is obvious. The conversation quickly moves on. Her reservedness seems like a natural byproduct of her being a young person still early in her career and life experiences, but also an intelligent boundary set up by someone well-versed in the pitfalls of fame. In reality television and talk shows, striking a balance between being open about past hurts and trauma and maintaining some measure of self-preserving distance is tricky, but one that the women in Red Table Talk already understand how to navigate.

“You guys grew up thinking about survival,” Jaden says about his parents in the latest episode, comparing his own privileged upbringing to their working class ones. “You can only think about food and water and safety and that was the only thing you were thinking about.” And indeed, part of the show’s appeal is seeing what kind of healing and conversation can take place when the parties involved aren’t struggling to merely survive. There’s much about the discourse in Red Table Talk that is unimaginable to most people, beginning with the baseline acceptance of one another, but the Smith women are using their platform to model the possibilities.


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