Written by: Jennifer Stoy, Special to CC2K
Any regular Bravo watcher knows the network has three signature franchises: Project Runway (even though the show is now on Lifetime and Bravo was forced to replace it with their discount, Tim Gunn-less version in The Fashion Show), Top Chef (the golden child), and all eight billion versions of the Real Housewives, from Orange County to Atlanta to the future installment set in Washington DC. And you know that in any group of three women or three television shows, there’s the smart one, the sweet one…and then there’s the ho?
Yeah, the Real Housewives is the ho. You know it, I know it, and Bravo certainly knows it. With the abbreviated first season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, the franchise has perfected a reality television formula that’s as old as Puck sticking his fingers in the peanut butter during the Real World: San Francisco and Richard Hatch double-dealing and running around naked in the original season of American Survivor. Truly, with the Jersey housewives, Bravo has mastered how to shape, edit, and market the lives of horrible, thoughtless people in a way so ruthless that its sheer brazenness makes it hard to be ashamed of your addiction to the show and its petty dramas. After all, when Teresa overturned that table in rage and frustration over Danielle, her dodgy past, and “the book,” it went viral in a way that most trashy reality shows can only dream of. Obviously, there’s a heavy element of staging in this: does anyone really believe with all the background research Bravo’s minions do, the book was something they didn’t know about? Or that the controversy wasn’t something they actively courted to look as realistic and explosive as possible? But they succeeded beyond the usual dreams of reality television producers, and there are a few key reasons why.
1. More “realistic” interactions between the housewife characters: In a true stroke of genius that surpasses even the original Coto housewives in The Real Housewives of Orange County, Bravo selected two sisters (Caroline and Dina), their sister-in-law Jacqueline, a woman who appears to be a childhood friend (Teresa), and finally, a new-ish friend of Jacqueline, Danielle, to be the focus of their series. This means that most of the housewives have a reason to talk to each other that surpasses “being on a reality TV show for the self-aggrandizement and cash.” This is in sharp comparison to the most recent season of The Real Housewives of Orange County, where any friendship that exists between Vicki, Jeana, Lauri, and Tamra is secondary to the franchise and branding that goes on, and the main conflict, between Tamra and Gretchen, feels more like a catfight partially whipped up by Bravo with a side of the two women being chosen to fit the same character type and wanting more screentime by being more outrageous and unlikable. However the book got into Dina and Caroline’s hands, their dislike of Danielle has as much to do about family and other semi-real issues than Caroline and Danielle fighting to see who gets more screentime after the focus groups weigh in.
2. Focus on family and domestic issues make the Jersey wives less offensive: Any regular watcher of the Real Housewives franchise, no matter how dedicated a capitalist, temporarily becomes a commie pinko bastard after watching these people rain down money on themselves and their brain-dead, usually sociopathic spawn for forty minutes a week. While Real Housewives of New Jersey is about as real as Velveeta, their interest in fame and family and omerta made their materialism far more bearable. For example, Teresa is a pageant/stage mother. Yes, this is probably bad for her daughters, but by watching her be interested in her daughters’ careers, we spend less time hearing about how she’s getting a forty thousand dollar Rolex for her birthday because she’s soooo hot (Tamra from OC) while apparently spending no time at all near her children. Indeed, the interest the Jersey wives – even Danielle, who clearly studied all the great reality television villains as is made clear by her every action – have in their own children is a great selling point of the show and leads to my third point.
3. The viewer doesn’t want to run over the children of these women: In particular, this is a problem that Real Housewives of Orange County has, in that one might be afraid to run around in Coto after dark for fear that the stupid, venal children of the Orange County housewives will run you over with their Mercedes while stoned and drunk on tequila on their way to spray tan for the third time of the week. Sure, Caroline’s son wants to run a strip club – but the worst part of that is that Caroline then judges Danielle harshly for her past in stripping and prostitution. One does not get the sense that Caroline would do what Tamra’s son did to Gretchen after Tamra deliberately got Gretchen “naked wasted” at her “etiquette dinner.” Even the pageant kids are cute, in a ditzy sort of way. They’re spoiled, sure, but because we see the housewives parent more actively and occasionally discipline, the way that Jacqueline didn’t immediately buy her daughter a Mercedes for her birthday while said daughter was failing in school, viewers can take comfort in that. It’s relatable – as it was surely shot and edited to be, but someone at Bravo has learned a lesson from earlier Housewives outings and Jon and Kate Plus Eight and avoided open exploitation of minors for profit.
4. Yay, Italian-Americans from Jersey: Where The Real Housewives of Atlanta failed pretty badly at showing their housewives as the successful but logical extension of the African-American middle class of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New Jersey succeeded. The housewives clearly live in a fantasy life of consumerist materialism that bears only the slightest connection to any kind of reality. However, the connection is there, and as my partially Italian roommate says, “these are some Italian women right there.” Once again, the housewives are playing in a heightened reality where Italian-ness is exaggerated for an American viewership that loves The Sopranos and The Godfather, but there is a distracting whiff of realism in the mix. It’s truly a pity that the subculture Bravo got right was Italian-Americans in Jersey when they could have picked a less dramatic and more realistic cast in Atlanta. One wonders if it ever occurred to Bravo to try again with the upcoming DC housewives, as the DC suburbs are another area where there’s a sizable population of non-white affluent women who “fit,” though I suspect instead there will be a bunch of rich earnest women who try to claim they know Barack Obama and can get invitations to the White House ANY TIME.
In the final analysis, to have a truly successful reality television show about the haute bourgeoisie and their conspicuous consumption, it helps to find non-cartoons who have reasons beyond the show to interact, as these actions take them out of the uncanny valley and into the sweet spot of reality television, where the real is completely synthetic, but relatably so. The Real Housewives of New Jersey managed it without making anyone less materialistic, dramatic, or selfish – will other reality shows follow? And does this mean that reality television has reached a new level of maturation in its development? Possibly, but given Bravo is falling prey to the current trend of putting something in DC to cash in on Obama-mania, we’ll see what happens.