“If my car could talk, it’d probably be like, ‘This b-tch cries too much.” So said NeNe Leakes of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” speaking in a confessional interview during the show’s eleventh season premiere this week.
Leakes, the linchpin of the franchise and reigning queen of GIF-able “Housewife” quotes, first leaped onto screens when RHOA debuted in October 2008. Sunday’s episode picks up as NeNe’s whirlwind decade has given way to a painful season in her life.
Leakes’s husband, Gregg, the audience learns, is undergoing treatment for stage-three colon cancer. “When they cut my colon out, my heart got bigger,” he quips at one point in the episode.
The strength of their marriage begins to come into focus. They gather with friends and family to pray for Gregg, “for healing, comfort, and understanding.”
“Increase his faith, Lord. Be with his wife, be with his son, so they can keep him supported,” the group asks. Gregg, outfitted in silk pajamas and a flat brim, breaks into tears recalling one particular night in the hospital. NeNe comforts him.
Real Housewives are often anti-heroes, vainglorious socialites and materialist wannabes you root against but revel in following. NeNe has played this role. Her boutique is literally named “Swagg.” Her catchphrase is “I am rich, b-tch.” She took her husband “for rich or for richer” in their wedding vows. But the worst housewives are the flattest, the ones with no depth beyond their insufferable narcissism. That’s not Leakes.
It’s easy to slip into a sense of nihilism watching the “Real Housewives.” You can end up rooting for the lesser of two evils, endeared to you only because they’re funny (unintentionally, for the most part), or they’re entrepreneurs (at least they try), or they want to be pop stars (“elegance is learned,” after all).
A lot of times you just end up rooting for someone solely because the person on the other side of the conflict is irredeemably obnoxious (see: anyone who took on the Marchese’s). Sometimes, you’re not even watching to take sides, but rather to bask in the sheer absurdity of it all. They produce plenty of that.
But the best Housewives are the most complicated ones. The Sonja Morgans, the Bethenny Frankels, the Lisa Rinnas, the Erika Jaynes, the Teresa Giudices, the Vicki Gunvalsons, the Kim Zolciaks. The women we see at their best and at their worst, and believably so, rather than at one extreme or the other. Take Gunvalson. She’s made some serious mistakes. But I maintain the most compelling moment in “Real Housewife” history, and perhaps reality television history, is this one, the excruciating scene in which she learned of her mother’s sudden death.
It’s these moments that sustain the series. Some Housewives you love to hate. Others you love and hate. Successful franchises strike the right balance. But they just don’t gel without a NeNe or a Vicki. Audiences need to see their real pain to laugh when they fake it. You have to have both.
An understandable presumption of hedonism dogs both the “Real Housewives” and their fans— that we watch for the clothes and conflict, and that they produce it all for the fame and money. Both are true. But the theory is reductive.
To succeed, Bravo needs to cast complicated women who are willing and able to show it. For all the contrived explosions, lulls, and accidental comedy, viewers ultimately want to have a stake in their lives. No compelling character, in fiction or reality, is one-dimensional. We can take comfort in knowing that remains true today. The programming on Bravo is Exhibit A.
A good Housewife tagline, the single sentence each woman uses to introduce herself in the opening credits, will always capture this. Appropriately, the line NeNe rolled out on Sunday is one for the ages. “I’m the glue for my wig— and my family,” she insisted.