If you are not interested in trash, please feel free to respectfully move along. This week, I can’t help but indulge myself.
There are two series in the Real Housewives franchise that I have devotedly committed to over the past nine years: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of New York City (hereafter known as RHOBH and RHONY respectively). These shows are undeniably a platform for consumerism and toxic aspiration, sustained rivalry amongst women, and have been part of a culture that has conflated and confused reality with authenticity. Yet, I get an absolutely enormous kick, and a whole lot of laughs, from watching these shows. It’s fun to analyse the mechanics and machinations of people, their friendships, their families and their neuroses operating in a petri dish for the most ridiculous parts of being human. I have also enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, the deep discussions, critiques and reminisces I’ve had with other fans about the sheer hilarity and drama that we have borne witness to. Is it OK to alleviate keenly-felt principles about the representation of women on screen, constructed storylines for drama and rampant exhibitionism of wealth? I don’t know, but apparently it’s what I anticipate and revel in on a weekly basis.
Some brief synopses for those of you who are unfamiliar:
RHOBH – Follows middle-aged stars of the small-screen, former models and child stars swanning about in Beverly Hills securing promotional gigs, creating popstar alter egos, running accountability businesses, swimwear lines, luxury restaurants and a QVC clothing collection. There is much self-promotion and product placement, air-kissing and a Lynchian sense of seething instability to the whole thing.
RHONY – Follows middle-aged successful entrepreneurs, Upper East Side socialites, former tenuous European royalty (via marriage then divorce) and a woman who is the physical embodiment of the untold enigma that is an international lifestyle brand. Again, there is much self-promotion and product placement, but also unbridled (often drunken) chaos and almost grotesque levels of silliness from pretty much the first minute of each episode to the last.
Both shows have a similar format but a very different sensibility to them. In RHONY, the mess is perpetually on show and it often seems you cannot move for it. Whether it’s Aviva Drescher throwing her prosthetic leg on the floor; Dorinda Medley yelling ‘Clip!’ and other obscurities after numerous very dirty martinis; Ramona Singer screaming ‘Take a Xanex!’; Ramona Singer doing just about anything; Luann de Lesseps using the word ‘cabaret’ more than should be legal; Tinsley Mortimer sat in a wedding dress with her mum Dale weeping over ultrasounds of her frozen eggs; Sonja Morgan drinking from any receptacle possible and trying to have sex with anything that moves; and Bethenny Frankel swinging between keeping everyone ship shape with sarcasm and sass, and her emotional spirals of loss, abuse and need for control, the show doesn’t have to look much further than the basic eccentricities of its cast to produce something interesting each week. There is very little that the cast don’t reveal about themselves on the show, which is what has kept fans loyal and hooked for over ten years.
RHOBH, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish. Indeed, it is almost a fascinating study in superficiality and repression. This is not to say that the superficial is not also present in RHONY, but cast members are more forthcoming and savage with their exposure of their own, and others’, bullshit. In RHOBH, the cast members, whilst fun, humorous and enjoyable to watch, have a hard time portraying even a basic level of realism. Sure, we see Kyle Richards doing the drunken splits every so often, Lisa Rinna wiping down hotel rooms and Erika Girardi digging into pumpkin pie, but the vast majority of the time, the cast members are reluctant to even be filmed eating. In one of the most recent episodes, a large bowl of cheesy pasta is brought out and there is a palpable tension in the air (apart from with Kyle and Teddi who tuck in, but definitely feel slightly guilty about having done so). On a trip to Amsterdam a few seasons ago, the RHOBH women skirt around eating space cake in a café, whereas the RHONY women would have been all over it, out the door and over the rainbow.
The RHOBH women are much more concerned with maintaining an image of absolute perfection, which means that when the show takes a turn for major drama, it can get very dark. You only have to have a basic knowledge of Freud to understand that what is repressed always returns, and in RHOBH we’ve seen almost cataclysmic fallout around addiction, abuse and loss alongside the beautiful mansions, the shopping trips on Rodeo Drive, lunches at Villa Blanca and spa days in Ojai. From the heart-breaking and very emotional rollercoaster ride that is sisters Kyle and Kim Richards’ relationship, Taylor Armstrong’s abuse at the hands of her husband, who went on to take his own life, Lisa Rinna smashing a wine glass after insinuations were made about her husband, and Erika Girardi having a melt-down in Hong Kong about the safety of her police officer son, it’s clear that the RHOBH women expend a lot of their energy on the show hiding behind a veneer of attempted perfection. Where in RHONY, chaos levels maintain a steady level, in RHOBH chaos violently erupts and is inescapable for everyone involved.
This may explain why the most recent series have been a little dry for RHOBH. True, recent additions like Denise Richards have been giving the show more of the casual chaos normally exhibited in RHONY, but as far as a compelling storyline goes, they’ve been clutching at straws for a while. But then the depths to which things plummet on the show makes me think that maybe we should be OK with a bit of glossy boredom. RHONY on the other hand is the gift that keeps on giving. Divorce, addiction, loss and friendship break-ups are dealt with here too, but are always served with a sardonic self-aware wink. This is the kind of dark humour that feels totally and utterly in-keeping with the general disposition of the city that is their namesake. Let’s all drink to that…