A couple of months ago, The Conversation With Amanda de Cadenet began its ivy-like pursuit of women’s attention. It was relatively tasteful in its persistence, which is rare in social media land. In my case, the host of this purportedly new kind of talk show, which began its first season three weeks ago, started following me on Twitter. My brain registered who Amanda de Cadenet was, at least to this degree: “England, 1990s, television?” Eventually I remembered that she was one of the hosts of a popular TV show I occasionally got to watch growing up, The Word, which appeared in England on Channel 4 from 1990 to 1995. The Word was a late-night program with far less structure or sense than the typical American late-night talk show. Nirvana debuted to non-American Earth on The Word. Kurt Cobain declared that night that Courtney Love was “the best f**k in the world.”
Soon after the show ended, de Cadenet moved to Los Angeles, where she appeared in a few films, including Brokedown Palace and Four Rooms. She then switched to photography and got very good at it. She married The Strokes’ Nick Valensi, her second marriage (she likes rock stars: her first marriage was to Duran Duran’s bassist John Taylor). She has three children, including twins with Valensi.
From behind the lens, de Cadenet, 39, has cultivated relationships with her subjects, many of whom are A-list celebrities. But it’s quite a leap from celebrity photographer to talk show host: the average female television viewer isn’t paying attention to who photographed Kim Kardashian in last week’s People. The Conversation also airs on Lifetime, a network that isn’t so great at promoting shows that need the most help, like last season’s weird 24-Hour Catwalk, which was hosted by fellow Brit Alexa Chung. Turning to Twitter paid off for the Conversation social media team, at least when it came to me. But I had already felt an affinity with de Cadenet – brand recognition, if you like — because of The Word. Lifetime may be hoping that the show’s guests, and Demi Moore, the show’s executive producer, will create that recognition for the average American viewer.
The Conversation, which airs Thursdays at 11PM, attempts to fill a lot of gaps, some of which it probably doesn’t even think it’s filling: the gap left by Oprah, the gap that shows like The View and Ellen can’t fill, because they have too many commercial breaks and they laugh and bicker and dance too much. It also fills the gap between tabloid photo and tabloid reader’s brain, the gap between how a person sounds in a magazine profile and how they sound when they’re talking to someone they trust, the gap between “silly superficial overpaid person” and “intelligent woman with insights to impart to we non-famous laypeople.” Certainly, The Conversation could use a few more stateswomen and author interviewees and a few less actresses, but it is demanding more of its subjects than any celebrity nonfiction program on the air right now.
Here’s the format: de Cadenet sits on a plush sofa with a woman and asks her a series of set questions, usually off-camera. What we witness, sometimes in medias res, is the discussion resulting from these questions (e.g., “What do you lie about?,” “What would you tell your 14-year-old self?”) The directing is refreshingly patient, the editing smooth. Significantly, there are several guests per episode. Some guests show up in multiple episodes, because the episodes are grouped by theme (“Love/Loss,” “Be Fearless,” “Facing What’s Next”). The show might be more at home on OWN, alongside Oprah’s Next Chapter, an hour-long program in which Oprah Winfrey visits a famous person in her home and rummages around her past and her psyche. But perhaps The Conversation is casting a wider net than Oprah. The discussions seem most relevant to women aged 35 to 50 – women who’ve been married or committed for awhile, women with children still at home – but really, the show should be watched by any woman 22 or older.
The guests’ insights – about marriage, about having a career, about financial independence – are things that young women probably don’t care to hear about, especially from rich, famous women who are older than them (e.g. Eva Longoria, Portia de Rossi). It’s no fun hearing where you’re supposed to be at 35 when you’re 22. And when these women convey their own experiences as warnings, young women watching might be inclined to dismiss them with, “That won’t be me, I won’t let that happen to me.” But where Girls allows us to revel in the mutual fucked-upedness of our 20s, The Conversation positions itself as the cool older sister preparing us for the rest of our life, which is hopefully long, and significant, and actually better than our “lost years.”
Not that it isn’t painful getting there. Here is an excerpt from de Cadenet’s conversation with the comedian Sarah Silverman, from the series premiere:
De Cadenet: So I really feel strongly about the importance of women earning their own income so that they have freedom not only, you know, in their job choices but also within their relationships.
Silverman: Completely! And it’s really sad to me. So many women…they let go of what, of who they are, for a relationship. I mean I think it often happens, and I’m not innocent of this, that you’re this strong, independent woman, and you meet the love of your life, and he’s attracted to you because you’re this strong, independent woman, but somehow – somehow lost in the years of that relationship, uh, you don’t even know what phone service you use anymore. You just become this atrophied shell, and you know, a marriage, a relationship can fall apart, and you’re – it’s – you’re responsible for that. You’re responsible for your own happiness. Whether you’re in a marriage or not, and unless you take responsibility for that every day, I think that you can get lost.
The two go on to talk about how women tend to compete with each other at work, instead of with men – how women will, without thinking twice, relish the idea of being “the only woman” who’s accomplished a particular thing, as if that in itself is an accomplishment. There is impatience and frustration in Silverman’s voice. How often have we seen her like this? How often have we seen anyone on television like this?
The Conversation, with its unfussy daytime lighting, close shots of the face, quick cuts of hand gestures and airy Los Angeles settings, may look like just a vicarious tete-à-tete with a celebrity. But it manages to be something more: provocative, interesting, occasionally inspiring. De Cadenet deserves all the credit for this. She works in Hollywood’s center ring, but is not quite of it, so has been able to draw some of these big shot interviewees back down to earth. She also brings in some non-celebrity heavyweights, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Leslie Bennetts, author of the pro-working-mother treatise The Feminine Mistake, to push the themes even further. She isn’t obsequious, superficial, or pious, which probably helps discourage her subjects from being so.
In the premiere, there is a segment with Gwyneth Paltrow, in which she describes the death of her father and attempts to explain why she is suddenly so into cooking, that will make even the most die-hard Paltrow haters feel something like sympathy, maybe even admiration. Celebrities are our lodestars, for some reason. They sell us products and vague ideas. But on The Conversation, these ideas start to feel less vague. We’re reminded, almost constantly, that money doesn’t buy happiness. Comfortingly, the universal feelings of loss and worthlessness, of selfishness and guilt, appear everywhere on this show: in words, in the furrows of lightly botoxed brows, hanging always in the air.