April 26, 2016 10:18 AM EDT

Tuesday marked Kelly Ripa’s first appearance on Live!, the talk show she co-hosts with Michael Strahan, since news broke last week of Strahan’s impending departure to take a full-time gig at Good Morning America. Ripa, unhappy with the manner in which she had been told of a major change in the lineup of her show, added extra time off to a pre-planned vacation. That led to a fairly uncomfortable set of episodes in which the competing interests of TV’s chummiest cohosts were revealed.

Returning today, Ripa allowed herself a moment of umbrage. In her words: “I needed a couple of days to gather my thoughts. After 26 years with this company, I earned the right.”

The show seemed constructed to redress Ripa’s feelings of discontent in the most elaborate manner possible. At the top of the show, Ripa and Strahan entered the set hand-in-hand, but the camera quickly came in tight on Ripa as she delivered uninterrupted remarks to the viewers at home, starting with some gags about just how serious a personnel change at a talk show is in the scheme of things. “Our long national nightmare is over,” she said self-deprecatingly. “I’m fairly certain there are trained professional snipers with tranquilizer darts in case I get too far ‘off-message.'” But it wasn’t entirely jokiness. She referred to the past week’s discussion over the future of Live! as the start of “a much greater conversation about communication and consideration and, most importantly, respect.”

“And since we’re being honest,” she said, “I don’t consider this just the workplace. This is my second home.” Ripa’s spent a career’s worth of effort building up Live!; the implication about how much, or how little, her bosses respected her work couldn’t be more clear.

Live! has always been about repartee, but this was Ripa’s moment. Alone in the frame (with Strahan’s laughter, and then his applause at Ripa’s more heartfelt points, eerily audible), the conversation, here, was between Ripa and her viewership. Forget Live! With Kelly and Michael; it was Live! With Kelly and You.

The framing of Ripa, uncomfortably close and isolated from the fellow with whom she has a few months left to work, was a failed directorial choice, which is what made it perfect. Live! leaned into the awkwardness of Ripa’s discontent, both with utter frankness about Ripa’s particular concerns (she remarked, during the show’s opening, that “Our parent company has assured me that Live! is a priority) and with a refusal to work too hard on chemistry between the co-hosts. Strahan had no response to Ripa’s sweeping concerns other than to say “I’m so happy you’re back.” (“Oh, thank you,” she replied.)

Though Ripa indicated she wanted to return to business as usual—”This is entertainment, it’s supposed to be entertaining”—her chat with Strahan was stilted and odd. Reminiscing about the late Prince, the pair seemed to be conducting two entirely different monologues. The energy was so tense and muted that at one point a guest, the actor Jaimie Alexander, asked the audience “You guys are all asleep, aren’t you?”

Why fake it? The whole idea of TV talk is that of intimacy; these hosts show up in fans’ living rooms daily. Phoniness would be tough to pull off even if the Ripa case didn’t hinge on a set of facts about a workplace breakdown in communication that many viewers, particularly women, will likely find deeply relatable. Ripa’s return to Live!—like, in a far different context, Ann Curry’s 2012 exit from Today— was a moment in which the niceties of broadcasting were stripped away. Strahan may have gotten a putative promotion within ABC. But Ripa, willing to be upfront about the sort of things that everyone, from TV stars to nine-to-fivers, is trained to hide, elevated herself.


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