Is It Time to Break Up With the Real Housewives?

Heidi Gutman/Bravo
Heidi Gutman/Bravo

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

You know that feeling that happens sometimes in life where you’re like, “How is this family?” Or, “How did my friends get like this?” That’s how I’m feeling about my beloved Real Housewives.

Like family, like friends, you always knew they weren’t, per se, good people. But they were yours, and you loved them for it. Yet are we at a breaking point?

There was a moment in this week’s The Real Housewives of New York City, specifically when new cast member Eboni K. Williams hurled the grenade, “Do you support white supremacy?” into a boozy dinner in the middle of COVID lockdowns at a haunted tattoo parlor in Salem that they arrived at on a rock band’s tour bus, where, for maybe the first time in my long history with the franchise, I wondered, “Do I even like this anymore?”

It’s not that I don’t think serious issues like race or politics or the fact that Ramona Singer absolutely voted for Trump but is too chickenshit to admit it because she thinks it will lose her Instagram followers shouldn’t be talked about on these shows. I’ve always rejected the idea that they are a “guilty pleasure” or even escapist. In fact, few reality series have ever exposed so nakedly the fundamental, fucked-up nature of American so-called aspirational society. It should be studied.

To Bravo’s credit, the best seasons it’s produced have been in response to calls for more engagement with the serious issues that surround us.

The Real Housewives of Potomac, which is in constant conversation with what it means to be a successful Black woman in the public eye, is arguably the best the franchise has ever produced—even if it’s the most slept-on. The recent season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, for all its COVID-safety mixed messaging, was elevated to new heights with its chronicling of its cast’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

How the ‘Real Housewives’ Franchise Became a Hotbed of Crime

And all of this without losing the fun. RHOA mined season-long drama from an alleged threesome with a stripper at a bachelorette party.

But for all the good that’s come from Bravo’s real-world reckoning, as this recent RHONY storyline has shown, it’s been shrouded in unpleasant darkness. For every “real-talk” conversation that happens, there also seems to be entrapment, like the cast is being sent to slaughter. Not that they don’t deserve it! And not that Williams isn’t a total badass in her fearless confrontation.

But phrases like “white fragility,” “gaslighting,” and “white supremacy” being tossed around as loosely as shots of vodka elicit an audience reaction akin to Luann de Lesseps in that scene: an immediate recoil and an instant “WTF?”

I’m thinking about all of this not just because of the RHONY white-lady comeuppance, which is, truthfully, a long time coming. It’s also the unease with which I watched this week’s episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

This has been an amazing season for the Beverly Hills installment. Kathy Hilton is bringing humor. Sutton Stracke is bringing plot. Dorit Kemsley is bringing fashion and plastic surgery lies. Wednesday night’s episode centered around Stracke shrieking the line, “What am I jealous of, your ugly leather pants?” to another cast member, a top-tier Housewives moment. Irrelevant to any of that, Harry Hamlin made a bolognese.

But the episode also aired in the wake of headlines that embezzlement victims of cast member Erika Girardi’s ex-husband, Tom, can collect payments from the star. It’s the latest twist in an ongoing saga in which reports on how Tom won millions for widows, orphans, and burn victims but never paid out their settlements became public—along with speculation about how complicit Erika was herself.

For a reality series that has often incorporated its stars’ legal troubles into episodic drama, it doesn’t get juicier than what’s happening with Girardi. But at what point does a guilty conscience compel you to stop using the word “juicy?” Watching the time capsule of how Girardi tried to spin things for cameras months ago as more details unfolded in real time is a fascinating exercise. It’s also unequivocally gross.

I’m thinking about this as The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City films while star Jen Shah is charged with defrauding elderly people in a telemarketing scam. I’m thinking about this as The Real Housewives of New York City has morphed into a How to Catch a Racist spin-off that has me climbing into my couch cushions in discomfort on a weekly basis. I’m thinking about this as a new season of The Real Housewives of Potomac gears up to premiere on Sunday night, the first in the aftermath of a public, ugly, and often sad legal war waged between castmates who got in a physical fight.

Darkness is, of course, a part of our current reality, so it behooves Bravo to incorporate that into its shows. There have been moments when we’ve celebrated how much richer the series became for it. But now, at least for this fan, tuning in each week has started to feel like an uncomfortable, maybe even dreaded obligation, like dinner with your divorced dad and his new bitch of a wife.

As usual, I don’t have answers for how to fix it. At least we have the ugly leather pants.

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