Caitlin McBride asks whether the phenomenon that is Real Housewives has crossed the line from reality into absurdity…
There have been a handful of unifying experiences of the pandemic: banana bread, Zoom fatigue, and the Real Housewives’ fast and furious positioning into the pop culture zeitgeist. Ever since Real Housewives of Orange County debuted in 2006, 11 different spin-offs have been spun in the US alone, dozens of podcasts have been born and this year alone, two books were published sharing origin stories of this television juggernaut. But, I ask with trepidation, has the Bravo Cinematic Universe jumped the shark?
Housewives has given us some of television’s most iconic moments – reality or otherwise – but, as it approaches the point of over-saturation, I, a natural pessimist, have legitimate concerns about how long this format can last and retain the same impact. Earlier this year, it was announced that the stars from our favourite franchises would be brought together for a special collective series entitled Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip in which superstars from Beverly Hills, Atlanta, New Jersey and New York, would bring their signature antics to an exotic location for filming. Thanks to internet detectives, this exact format has been foreshadowed as one of the four horsemen of Housewives apocalypse, thanks to an unearthed interview with Bravo deity himself Andy Cohen in 2016. He said that this type of set-up is “going to be at the end of the line … We’ll do it at the end. It’s something that we don’t waste now. We want to save it for later.”
This, to some, set off alarm bells that outwardly Bravo was pushing one of its growing cash-cows into overdrive while slowly pulling the handbrake behind the scenes. In reality though, it’s likely just straight business: Bravo is owned by NBC Universal which recently launched its new streaming service Peacock, and needs some surefire golden tickets to guarantee subscriptions through exclusive programming by targeting loyal viewers. And few are more loyal than the Housewives community. It’s not as if we aren’t getting bang for our buck; pairing TV legends together on private jets and five-star villas with the cameras rolling is an ingenious idea. But there are only so many times you can copy and paste a formula for success. Already, two more spin-offs featuring carefully chosen harbingers of chaos in the forms of Tamra Judge and Brandi Glanville, have been filmed for Peacock, and will have staggered launch dates. 2021 has been a defining year in Housewives programming. Bravo cancelled Dallas after five seasons, revitalised Miami after an eight-year hiatus and it’s rumoured that New York won’t return until 2023 after an ‘extended hiatus’ due to abysmal ratings from its most recent season.
For years, viewers have been screaming for diversity in Housewives as women of colour are disproportionately represented on screen, particularly in New York. Last year, it was announced that lawyer and broadcaster Eboni K. Williams would be the first Black housewife to join New York City after 13 years on air. After initial excitement at historic casting, what actually aired was the most uncomfortable viewing in the show’s history. After filming, the network investigated two formal complaints of racism made by Williams, and a member of the production crew. Two books published this year shed light on the machinations that go into making Housewife magic. First, there was Brian J. Moylan’s The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives which explores the cultural imprint the show has left and some historic research on its origins, and secondly, Not All Diamonds and Rosé by David Quinn offers a more ‘behind the velvet rope’ portrayal of the franchise’s timeline with more than 150 interviews.
The fact that it was supported by Cohen and Bravo, with reported copy approval and a percentage of sales means that readers got the stories they’d been dying to hear – but only as the network wanted the public to see it. It’s fair to say that we have reached peak interest in the shows; some of which are in its fourth or fifth successful iterations, and others which are struggling to maintain authentic storylines that extend beyond Twitter wars and glam squads. However, two real-life criminal allegations played out in Beverly Hills and Salt Lake City are transfixing. Erika Girardi (aka Erika Jayne) has starred on Beverly Hills since 2015, and is now facing a mountain of lawsuits and legal challenges related to her estranged husband Tom Girardi. Until last year, he was one of the most respected attorneys in the US, famous for his work on the Erin Brockovich case, and made the odd guest appearance during which it was difficult to get an accurate read of his character. All we knew is that Erika bragged about her $40,000-a-month budget and how much she loved her much older husband. Over the last year, he has since been disbarred and found to have misappropriated millions of dollars of client funds. She filed for divorce and he was later diagnosed with dementia.
Both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times profiled Girardi in recent months, and suddenly Erika jumped from being fodder for gossip blogs and Bravo message boards to legitimate water cooler conversation. [For the record, she says she had no knowledge of what he was doing]. Meanwhile, a few states over In Salt Lake City, cast member Jen Shah has been charged with fraud and money laundering, for which she is facing decades in federal prison. The fact that Bravo cameras happened to be there when the FBI showed up at her house with a search warrant was dumb luck – but the kind of luck that wins Emmys. As long as there are interesting people who are willing to put themselves on international television, despite engaging in criminal activity, there will always be an appetite to watch these women.
The schadenfreude of watching Shah, a woman whose tantrums straddled an invisible line between entertaining and violent, will live on in Housewives infamy. And infamy, to Housewives villains, is the only currency that might be more important than money. To describe my love of Housewives and the stories they tell, the insanity they normalise, and the fake legs they throw at dinner parties, is almost too difficult to put into words. I had an easier time writing my wedding vows. But I worry about its potential to live in the halls of anachronism.
Will we look at it in 10 years’ time and wonder why someone hasn’t put the format out to pasture? Or, will they be so part of the television blueprint – like late night chat shows – that we can’t imagine life before them? What really happened on Scary Island? Did Kyle really steal Kim’s goddamn house? Does Ashley Darby really love Michael? These are the questions that keep me up at night, and until I know the answer, I can only hope that these women will stay on air.