The early moments of Bravo’s “Play by Play” find Jerry O’Connell and his three male co-hosts chanting the network’s name in unison, each with a hand in the middle of the table, declaring their allegiance to the sacred master of reality television as though breaking a huddle. Therein lies the genius of the show. The breadth (not depth) of Bravo’s programming invites obsession. And its hyper-feminine anti-heroes invite male interest— at least more than some might intuit.
Bravos’ market researchers know that many a man sentenced to sit through an hour of “Vanderpump Rules” by his girlfriend has emerged a fan. Some, like O’Connell, lean into it. “Play by Play,” which is basically “NFL Countdown” for the “Real Housewife” franchise, probably best represents the network’s campaign to make dudes feel okay about having an informed opinion on Vicki Gunvalson’s “pattern of loving unavailable men,” as O’Connell (accurately) put it.
The show, after all, was originally slated to go by “Real Men Watch Bravo,” a title that was denounced as sexist and homophobic by critics who successfully browbeat the network into submission. No matter, generic as it is, “Play by Play” better captures the show’s clever reliance on a format popularized by sports networks who never could have imagined this particular appropriation of their creations. It’s all very amusing.
Like the “Watch What Happens Live” clubhouse, the “Play by Play” studio is replete with memorabilia from Bravo’s full slate of programming— a photo of Jax Taylor flipping his middle fingers up at SUR, Bravolebrities’ literary achievements on a shelf—but all with a more masculine flair. A Dorinda Medley basketball jersey is pinned to the wall, right beside pennants that allude to various Bravo shows. Critically, three untouched bowls of popcorn, pretzels, and chips sit in the middle of the table. The visual effect is one of four men debating the merits of #TeamBethenny and #TeamCarole over their weekly poker game.
That concept is executed pretty well. The discussions have all the enthusiasm and partisan fervor of a CNN panel with none of the uninformed opinions. Fervor, by the way, is key to Bravo, and key to “Play by Play.” Politics is often compared to sports, in that people act reflexively out of deep personal loyalty to their team, and the Bravo universe stirs similar conflicts. Indeed, when Andy Cohen dropped into “Play by Play’s” premiere for an interview, O’Connell actually got him to make a little news by referring to Carole Radziwill’s infamous “full of sh-t” line at the last “Real Housewives of New York City” reunion as “Trumpian.”
A moment like that explains, in part, why “Play by Play” fills a hole in Bravo’s schedule. The network— and certainly everyone involved in “Play by Play” and “Watch What Happens Live”— is in on the joke: it’s funny to take this stuff seriously. But for all its moments of levity, legitimate opportunities to analyze sex, race, and class abound on Bravo.
“Play by Play” acknowledges that. Take Michael Yo’s reflections on dating as a minority in a predominantly white high school, or Dave Holmes’ plea to Reza Farahan, “and by extension all of the gay men in America,” to “stop calling [their] female friends ‘b-tch.’” On Bravo, there’s fodder for the frivolous and fodder for the serious— “Play by Play” uses both, but with an appropriate emphasis on the frivolous.
Sure, the conversations could come more smoothly, and the format could fall into an easier rhythm. But it’s easy to imagine time and experience helping on both counts. A point made by Rebecca Romjin (introduced by O’Connell in a “Borat” voice as “My wife!”) on the “Real Housewives of Dallas,” which she assessed to be “still rough around the edges,” was promising as an indication of the network’s willingness to allow criticisms of its programming on the show, which is crucial to maintaining credibility with viewers. Romjin, of course, saw the franchise’s roughness as a positive, since it meant the cast is less staid, but the implication was that the women in other franchises are. It is probably true.
Clearly, there’s a market for extended conversations about Bravo’s programming, and a market for men who want to have extended conversations about Bravo’s programming. I don’t know exactly how large either is, but killing those two birds with one stone seems like a smart enough ploy. “Play by Play” makes a strong effort to tackle both— all without alienating women, although it would be difficult for a show hosted by Jerry O’Connell to do that anyway.
Before throwing to his first commercial break, O’Connell introduced a package of classic “Ramoments” from the New York linchpin by wordlessly alluding to an iconic episode that aired almost a decade ago, when Ramona Singer walked down a runway during Brooklyn Fashion Week with her eyes bulging inexplicably. To most, O’Connell’s mimicry would have meant little. But as soon as his brows shot upward, the audience got it, and erupted in laughter.