So there are apparently seven TV shows comprising the Real Housewives franchise, which seems wrong to me. Not as a moral judgment, mind, but factually. Statistically unlikely, let’s say.
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Oh, certainly the series in one of its permutations seems always to be on whenever I’m flipping channels—there are enough showings in any given week to account for dozens of shows—but I attributed that to the basic-cable strategy of rerunning any hit show as often as possible. I figured there were three, maybe four of the bloody things, and their ubiquity was an illusion created by incessant repeats. But nope: Seven. And that’s not counting the various Bethenny Frankel-related spinoffs. If that seems excessive to you, well, excess is what The Real Housewives brand is all about.
And now some bright spark at Chronicle Books has decided that the world is crying out for The Real Housewives Tell It Like It Is, a collection of quotes from all of the various shows, organized as a notional lifestyle guide and tricked out with glossy pictures of the various Housewives, Photoshopped so that they appear to be riding motorbikes, or wrapped around stripper poles, or hefting gigantic Botox needles and such. Frankly, the whole prospect makes me uneasy.
For those not in the know, The Real Housewives is a franchise of reality series that air on Bravo (a cable network that, when it debuted, specialized in running uncut Bertolucci movies and opera simulcasts from La Scala. Just sayin’). Each show focuses on a group of loosely acquainted women, who are all varying degrees of filthy rich, in a different glamorous location—New York, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Atlanta, Sheboygan, Reykjavik, Pyongyang (I think. I’m a little hazy on the details, and also I may or may not have been drinking)—where the cameras follow them around as they tend to their children, shop, make poor decisions (romantic and otherwise), get sloshed, schedule unnecessary surgery, and—mostly—bitch, backstab and curse each other out.
This kind of thing is nothing new, of course. Privileged people behaving badly have been a ratings-grabber since the days of Dynasty and Dallas—and now, as then, the hook is a combination of envy, schadenfreude and an appeal to moral superiority. We may admire the sass of these Real Housewives, the unearned sense of invincibility with which their money allows them to present themselves—“You have to find the perfect balance of taking care of yourself and being self-absorbed,” says Orange County’s Alexis; “Am I high-maintenance? Of course I am. Look at me!”—but it’s a grudging admiration, mingled with a degree of horror and pity. It’s an opportunity to feel good about ourselves, about our lives, our circumstances. If it were me with that fabulous house, those fabulous clothes, with the wealth and support system that these women enjoy, the viewer is invited to think, then surely I would not be so petty, so crass, so ungrateful and unwise.
Gilt-edged, laid out like a faux-designer daybook, The Real Housewives Tell It Like It Is packages itself as an essential lifestyle aide, if your lifestyle demands that you have ready access to phrases like “Holy mother of balls!” As a collection of wit and wisdom, it ain’t exactly Oscar Wilde. Hell, it’s not even Bart Simpson’s Guide To Life. (At least Bart has a team of professional writers, while the Housewives are unscripted.) It’s a profoundly unnecessary little book, is my point, and I defy anyone to argue seriously that it is somehow culturally vital to preserve such bons mots as “certainly doesn’t look like she just pushed a watermelon out of her chuckarella.”
Even if you are a fan, these quips (“Keep it cute or put it on mute”) and digs (“You seriously have mad cow”) and boasts (“Lashes bustin’, lips poppin’ ”) really only make sense within the context of the show. There’s nothing to be gained by taking an off-the-cuff comment like “I’m starving. I need a drink,” and setting it down in cold type—even if you add a wacky picture.
But it’s all part of the branding process—not just Bravo’s branding of the show, but each Housewife’s branding of herself. Because they’re all savvy (or cynical) enough to know that you’ve got to make an impression if you want be the breakout star. And so they cultivate their poses and their scare-quotes “attitude,” crafting zingy catchphrases just like the ones they hear in the movies—or, more likely given how far we are into the cultural cycle, on other reality shows—in hopes of justifying the indignity of having cameras around to capture every stupid thing that pops out of their mouths. Why? Alexis’ little throwaway “Look at me!” may be meant as an explanation, but it sounds more like a plea.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.