In the Real Housewives franchise, which includes seven reality series set around the U.S., along with a handful of international incarnations, and spans 13 years on television network Bravo, there are moments so outrageous that it’s clear why some would blast the reality juggernaut as entirely superficial.
Here’s just a handful of those moments: New York housewife Aviva Drescher pulling off her prosthetic leg and throwing it across a room while shouting “The only thing that is artificial or fake about me is this!”; New Jersey housewife Teresa Giudice viciously flipping a table during a fight; New York’s Kelly Bensimon having a meltdown while on vacation with the other women while claiming fellow housewife Bethenny Frankel was conspiring to kill her; New Jersey husbands Joe Giudice and Joe Gorga tackling each other after one called the other’s wife “scum,” inadvertently revealing Gorga’s spray-on hair.
Add to that countless martinis thrown in countless faces and each housewife’s opening-theme tagline (ex. “Call animal control, ’cause there’s a cougar on the loose”; “I may be married to a plastic surgeon, but I’m 98 per cent real”; “I age like fine wine, and now I am ready to chill”; “I have a taste for luxury and luxury has a taste for me”).
To sum up the franchise in a word, it is shameless. It’s come under fire over the years for its representation of women (with the aforementioned list of big moments alone, a casual viewer might think all they do is attack each other) and for what it has to say about wealth and class. But it’s difficult to name any other series, particularly as long-running, that features successful women of a certain age. “Housewives” might be the name, but many of the castmembers have built their own empires. Frankel is the founder of the Skinnygirl brand with a net worth of $25 million; Kandi Buruss is a Grammy-winning songwriter and singer, and owns a beloved Atlanta restaurant chain with a net worth of $35 million; Lisa Vanderpump is a noted restaurateur and club-owner, and also produces her own spin-off series Vanderpump Rules , with a net worth of $75 million.
Despite the many spin-offs, the crown jewel of the franchise remains its second iteration: The Real Housewives of New York . Premiering in 2008, it’s been on the air for 11 seasons and has only gotten better year to year. The absurdity is simply too high, the feuds often spanning years on- and off-screen, splashing on tabloid covers between seasons. New York’s housewives, like all of the others, can’t resist publicity, but it’s also clear that in this city, these women are real friends going through real-life drama. It’s why the fights are the most vicious, and why the rare moments in which everyone gets along don’t feel boring but make for a rather sweet reprieve.
In its 10th season, it reached what may be its peak, including a “boat trip from hell” in Colombia, which resulted in explosive diarrhea; several of the women being outed as alcoholics; an arrest; a child-custody battle; and the death of a husband, who was one of the show’s most beloved in its earlier seasons. At 22 episodes, each moment racked up the tension and the emotional stakes.
Over the top it may be, but there’s a special electricity with Real Housewives that comes from the simple fact that much of what we’re seeing is real. What reads as nothing more than a dramatic storyline is a woman’s actual life playing out or falling apart in front of us. The most satisfying part of the season, in fact, comes when it’s over and we’re granted “reunion” episodes where the castmembers come together again in a panel hosted by Housewives producer Andy Cohen. Alongside one another, they go over everything that happened and where everyone stands.
Admittedly, Real Housewives will never be considered to be on par with, say, The Sopranos or Big Little Lies . But it features real glimmers of both and, frankly, just as much drama. Watching someone flip a table at a public restaurant while calling all her friends “whores” is impossible to look away from; and therefore it’s damned to guilty pleasure status. Which is a shame considering the endless coterie of characters the series has provided, the universe its built for an often undervalued audience of women and gay men across generations, and the way its made a name for Cohen and Bravo.
It does, then, feel exclusive in a sense, catered so perfectly for an audience that revels in unhinged antics and schadenfreude, but also places those same figures it shamelessly ogles and mocks on pedestals.
If anything, it’s a fun reminder that, in the words of former countess and current New York housewife Luann De Lesseps, “money can’t buy you class” — whether you’re a housewife or a reality television viewer.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019