Jada Pinkett Smith’s announcement earlier this month that she was bringing herself to her infamous red table in service of “some healing that needs to happen” was always guaranteed to make some waves. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a summer starved for new content, the news that the Pinkett Smiths were going to address the latest round of rumors swirling around their marriage in depth for the first time would have been required viewing for large swaths of America. But in the middle of our ongoing pandemic, Friday’s very special episode of Red Table Talk became 2020’s first genuine summer blockbuster, racking up a million views within the first hour of publication and tens of millions more in the days since—an extraordinary burst of sound and fury that, when all is said and done, revealed next to nothing.
Over the course of a tight 12 minutes (the show’s episodes normally average around 40 minutes in run time), the Pinkett Smiths managed to present the feeling of a confessional while confessing very little. They also walked a tightrope, balancing the need to present a united front with the necessity of exposing the fractures of their nearly 25-year marriage. Dressed in matching blue shirts and denim, the couple mostly confirmed singer-songwriter August Alsina’s recent revelation that he and Jada had an affair—or, as she would have it, an “entanglement”—that Will was largely aware of, while simultaneously affirming that they were still partners for life, that their bond was deeper than the average viewer could really understand. In other words, despite the seemingly juicy reveal, last week’s Red Table Talk was nothing more than a remix on the standard responses that the couple has given for years whenever confronted with rumors that they are monogamish.
For the uninitiated, Red Table Talk is a—you guessed it—talk show, one that’s typically hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith; her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris; and her daughter, Willow Smith, on Facebook Watch*. The show has featured Black luminaries from Toni Braxton to Snoop Dogg. In what was perhaps, before this month, the most famous episode, Pinkett Smith interviewed Jordyn Woods, who was at the time in the middle of a Kardashian-Jenner cheating scandal. The show is framed as a conduit of radical honesty. In one 2018 episode, Pinkett Smith sat down with her husband’s first wife, Sheree Fletcher, and the conversation they had about navigating their roles in each other’s lives was refreshingly frank and intimate.
This was the kind of dialogue viewers expected when the Pinkett Smiths decided to tackle head-on the chatter around their marriage that rose to a fever pitch after Alsina did an interview with radio’s most influential chaos agent, The Breakfast Club. After all, here’s what Alsina said of his affair with Pinkett Smith:
I actually sat down with Will and had a conversation due to the transformation from their marriage to life partnership, that they had spoken of several times, and it, you know, not involving romanticism. He gave me his blessing. And I totally gave myself to that relationship, for years of my life.
This seemed to attest to what many observers of the Pinkett-Smith union had guessed for years, that the two are in an open relationship of sorts, or more cynically, that they are primarily business partners. And while the couple’s confirmation of most of Alsina’s account initially reads as the most significant tidbit to come out of their sit-down, there is subtler work being done here. In confessing to an “entanglement,” Will and Jada might theoretically have opened up a conversation that would address rumors that are, at this point, at least 15 years old. But the episode wasn’t meant to open up a conversation. It was meant to end one. And by saying that the relationship happened during a separation—or, as Will put it, when he “was done with your ass”—that’s more or less what the couple did.
In talking about their separation, the two are perhaps at the most honest we’ve seen them, but for all the tabloid-friendly disclosures, there is even more left unsaid. They never delve into what caused the separation; they just state it was necessary and that it strengthened their “life partnership.” Will alludes to getting back at Jada for the Alsina affair, and she responds that he already has, but if the separation was mutual, that raises the question of why any sort of revenge is necessary. Whole theses could be written about the long groan Smith lets out when the two fist-bump after saying, “We ride together. We die together. Bad marriage for life.” By the end of the 12 minutes of therapy speak and obfuscations, there are more questions than there were before they started. In framing this as the frankest discussion of their marriage to date, they manage to get away with saying very little. All we are really left with is a confirmation of what Alsina has already said—which, in its own way, does break ground for a couple that has mostly preferred to keep their relationship under wraps.
Which is, of course, their prerogative. They owe us nothing more than we pay for with the price of our movie tickets and of watching a few ads. Still, the value of this slickly produced come-to-Jesus moment is less a paean to radical honesty than a testament to their public relations savvy.
Correction, July 15, 2020: This article originally misidentified the platform that Red Table Talk appears on. It is Facebook Watch, not Facebook Live.