Formats Unpacked: Red Table Talks
How discussions between three generations of opinionated women turned into a cultural staple
It’s been a while. Holidays, work and weddings have all played havoc with the Formats Unpacked publishing schedule of late. Well, summer is firmly behind us and we’re back with a cracker.
Doing the unpacking is our very own Patricia Yaker Ekall. Patricia is the writer and editorial lead for the Bellagio Bulletin, a newsletter and publication we produce for the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s her first unpacking since joining Storythings earlier in the summer and given how great it is, I hope there will be many more to follow.
Over to Patricia…
What’s it called?
Red Table Talk (RTT), a Facebook Watch original.
What’s the format?
RTT is a talk show that features a series of insightful and thought-provoking conversations. Led by a famous trio comprising a grandmother, a mother and a daughter, the show invites guests to discuss today’s most prescient topics around a literal red table. These guests tend to be A-listers: Gwyneth Paltrow, the Williams sisters and Gabrielle Union have all contributed to genuinely fascinating conversations.
RTT also features distinguished individuals who happen to be experts on an episode’s chosen topic. The first session with the psychologist Dr Ramini on the narcissism epidemic is, in my opinion, one of the better episodes of the series.
The famous hosts belong to one of Hollywood’s most scrutinised families. Red Table Talk is hosted by Adrien Banfield-Norris, Jada Pinkett Smith and Willow Smith.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
I can’t recall the first time that I watched Red Table Talk. It just seemed to appear mid-air as a cultural moment and overnight staple. Of all the onscreen conversational shows out there, RTT has stood out among the most popular in a relatively short period. The multi-generational approach is the most disarming aspect of the show. Firstly, it amplifies the voices of women hosts who, through experience and participation, represent various aspects of the cultural landscape. With this approach, the voices of a broad range of viewers are represented. This has allowed the hosts to cast their net wide, so to speak, and capture triple the number of people they might otherwise have done had it been a one-woman show.
RTT also gives audiences a glimpse into the perspectives of people from all walks of life, and on what the hosts would call “their own journeys,” but with personal takes on shared experiences. The series demonstrates how these differing points of view play out in interactions with others. Each individual’s sense of hope, points of pain and biases are unique. Refreshingly, there are plenty of self-confessed biases from guests as well as the hosts. You’ll see this, for example, in their discussions around the whiteness of feminism, the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, or even the nuances behind the spats and scandals of the rich and famous.
Another aspect of the show’s moreishness is in the subjects it chooses to engage. The topics are thought-provoking, tension-filled and often boundary-pushing. For example, imagine discussing your polyamorous adventures with your mother (who’s cool with it) and your “gammy” (who very much is not cool with it). Topics range from the heavy - such as suicide, crime, drugs and assault - to the jovial - including sex, love and the shenanigans within celebrity culture.
The secret sauce of Red Table Talk is in its multi-angled, multi-generational approach to a conversational talk show. The fact that RTT now has an off-shoot, in the form of the Estafan edition, proves that this format is addictive and repeatable.
Earlier, I mentioned Dr Ramini’s first episode on RTT. It’s an outstanding example of what the show can achieve in terms of ‘edutainment.’ It is not, however, my favourite episode; just one I’d recommend.
I prefer episodes that push the needle on something controversial, frightening, or heartbreaking. The most memorable one, to me, triggers an uncomfortable question: what is up with all the Asian hate from the Black community (really, many communities) since the start of the pandemic? The RTT hosts tried to uncover this topic, which they bluntly called: Confronting The Divide Between Black and Asian Americans, with the help of award-winning journalist Lisa Ling and respected scholar Dr Michael Eric Dyson.
The reasons behind the onslaught of abuse that Asian Americans have endured since the outbreak of Covid-19 are complicated enough. But figuring out why African Americans have been attacking Asian Americans within their shared communities asks the audience to think more deeply about seemingly unrelated issues. It touches on so many factors that have resulted in dramatically different legacies for minority communities in the United States. The show reveals that one such aspect includes the historical favouritism of the US government towards one community over another. This, apparently, resulted in the economic growth of one group but the degradation of another, allowing tensions to simmer over the decades.
But there is no excuse for violence and the show provides an intricate and nuanced discussion that the hosts and guests try to unpack with as much honesty and compassion as each can muster. One revealing thing I learned was that the notion of the “model minority” community, which is famously attributed to Asians in countries foreign to theirs, has also been covertly applied to Black communities: as the models of inclusivity and safe spaces. The idea that this might not be the case was a sobering and humbling experience.
I love the approach of RTT and would be interested to hear about other formats that offer multigeneration perspectives in an interesting way. What have I missed? Who else is doing this?
We’re always looking for people to unpack a favourite format. Is that you? Would you like to share your thoughts on why a format you love works? If so, just get in touch.
Thanks to Patricia and thanks to you all for reading, subscribing and enthusing about formats.
Til next time,