I have always been fascinated by talk shows because even though there are millions of people watching, the format seems made for introverts. I came of age during the time of Sally Jesse Raphael, Phil Donahue, Montel Williams, and Ricki Lake, but my favorite thing to watch growing up to was the one-on-ones between Oprah Winfrey and her public, or Oprah Winfrey and name-the-celebrity. Watching Oprah, I felt at once like I was eavesdropping and a part of the conversation.
Now, as my best friend puts it, everyone seems to have a show. She said it because she wants to be a talk show host, but there’s some truth to this idea. Janet Mock, author of Redefining Realness and one of our country’s most visible trans women of color, is now a talk-show host on what MSNBC is calling its “new video experience”: Shift, a series of 14 online-only shows the cable channel launched in December. The shows are meant to appeal to 16-to-34 year-olds, whose TV viewership has been dropping off.
Mock’s show, So Popular, is about popular culture. This is exciting particularly because Mock mentioned to Bitch that pop culture was a big part of her groundbreaking memoir—making the most of her platform as one of the few voices for trans women of color includes getting people into the spotlight who usually are ignored.
Mock describes her mission in the inaugural episode of So Popular perfectly: “Here to cover all things culture, from art and entertainment to literature and anything trending in the zeitgeist. Our goal is to discuss the things you pretend you’re too smart to like, in an effort to expand the idea of what is considered political and worthy of analysis. Every Friday, we will have fun, we will be cheeky, we will mine the nuggets of truth from the cultural topics and experiences that consume our time and I will mess up the teleprompter often.”
It turns out she messes up infrequently. There are some awkward pauses in the first episode, but that’s to be expected. Viewers will certainly see and experience how a show that’s streaming online, instead of crammed into the space between commercial breaks, cuts down on time constraints. Although it never seems like Mock is just filling time, in the first episode, Mock interviews Sherri Shepard and lets the comedian talk more than she asks questions. It made me keenly aware of how truncated the television talk-show format is; You never get to hear guests fully tell their stories or flesh out thoughts in the leisurely way the way that So Popular allows.
Mock’s style and demeanor also allows for an interesting media experience. As a host, her demeanor lands somewhere on the spectrum between someone like Melissa Harris-Perry and Queen Latifah. In an episode where two black film critics discussed recent releases, Mock introduces the movie Top Five as Sherri Shepherd’s movie. I took note of this because my first reaction was, “There’s this other guy named Chris Rock in it!” And then I thought of the amount of progress we’ve made when a talk show host could give a black woman ownership of a movie and center her participation, when the norm has always been instead to make black women afterthoughts.
I am a fan of how Mock centers all women of color on So Popular. Her January 9th episode, for example, features an interview with Iranian filmmaker Desiree Akhavan about her film, Appropriate Behavior. Other episodes have explored privacy and the Sony hacks, Selma, and sexual assault allegations leveled against Bill Cosby.
Because it is still new, there’s certainly room for Mock and So Popular producers to focus the format and for Mock to hone her style. But as someone who will always have nostalgia for the days of a talk show that wasn’t focused on hard news or politics, and when Oprah paved the way for a black women to follow her lead in the talk show format, So Popular is refreshing. You can see the subtle impact of Mock’s role as an activist lending itself to this work—in her own graceful style, she literally and figuratively gives otherwise invisible people a major forum. I hope that ultimately, the show’s name will also end up being an accurate descriptor for its future.
Related Reading: Mock and Awe — An Interview with Janet Mock