“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “The Real Housewives of New York City” air one day apart. As the spring unfolds, this proximity is creating a contrast that illuminates the two basic categories of a “Real Housewives” franchise.
It’s all about opposing tensions. For the Beverly Hills housewives, the central tension is between the illusion of propriety and the women’s varying abilities to maintain it. Even Denise Richards and Erika Girardi, both of whom make great housewives because they challenge the Beverly Hills code of conduct, occasionally demand decorum—like not having discussions about threesomes near Denise’s children. This season of RHOBH promises more explosive conflict with Denise, who will deny a tawdry rumor for the sake of her marriage and reputation. There’s a reason we laugh at super dad Mauricio getting stoned in his mansion. It’s unexpected.
The “Real Housewives of New York City” started out in the same category. Luann, the countess, once reprimanded Bethenny for introducing her to a driver by her first name. Alex and Simon’s Brooklyn fixer upper mortified RHONY’s Upper East Side dwellers. Now the women get so drunk they chip their teeth, threaten police officers, and throw tiki torches. Thus, the tension on RHONY is not about maintaining the illusion of propriety, because they’ve largely given up on that project. The tension is between their social status and their behavior.
To put it more concisely: RHOBH is about sustaining the illusion of propriety, RHONY is about abandoning it. The Dallas housewives would fall into the first category. The New Jersey housewives would fall into the second, along with the Atlanta and Orange County housewives. (Think of the OC housewives drinking like fish on a golf course, or any scene with Kelly Dodd, who changed the trajectory of the show after Heather Dubrow’s departure.)
There’s usually a woman or two in each franchise that behaves more like someone from the opposite category (think Lisa Rinna, especially in Amsterdam, or Leann Locken), which helps create an interesting dynamic.
RHONY’s brilliant new housewife, Leah McSweeney, nakedly—drunkenly—extinguishes a tiki torch with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot this season, symbolically dousing the flame of white supremacy. The podcast she hosted before joining the show, and still hosts, is literally called “Improper Etiquette,” which is also the perfect description of RHONY.
“Don’t get all socialite on me!” Leah screams at Sonja, who shouts back, “Don’t get all socialist on me!”
“When did this become Occupy Hamptons?” Sonja quips in a confessional.
The next morning, Ramona, who left the women to party elsewhere, is incensed to find her home in a state of disaster. Cameras catch aging socialite Tinsley Mortimer passed out in bed next to a plate of pasta. There’s a sex toy in the chicken. It’s a mess.
Ramona’s freakout over her friend’s lapse in decorum is funny to viewers because, as Leah pointed out in a Thursday Instagram, she has similar lapses constantly. It’s the same with the women’s critiques of Leah’s tattoos. The complaints are laughable, not credible, because these are the women urinating in the middle of corn mazes with cameras rolling. (There are million other examples, like Aviva condemning Ramona and Sonja for allegedly impolite behavior and then going on to throw her fake leg at Le Cirque. And remember Aviva’s dad?)
Over time, the show has evolved into a brilliant tragicomedy that captures aging socialites grappling with class and all of its cultural and psychological implications. The Beverly Hills women drink, sometimes a lot, but when they do, they end up performing impressions of each other and fighting over group dynamics. It’s interesting in its own way, but different.
Luann went from a countess who writes books on etiquette, to a wannabe pop star, to jail, then back to the Hamptons. Sonja, the single best person on Bravo, is still wounded by her divorce from J.P. Morgan’s great-grandson, and grappling with its impact on her social life and self-esteem. She’s scolded when she puts the Morgan family crest on a pair of loafers, screams about not being a “trophy wife,” and berates her cast mates for “touching the Morgan letters” at a museum. “I party with John John Kennedy and Madonna all the time,” she drunkenly rambled to Dorinda a few years back.
Dorinda, meanwhile, still struggles with the death of her highly-regarded husband, a former speechwriter for Geraldine Ferraro and adviser to George Soros. Her troubling relationship with alcohol leads to outbursts the wife of a powerful man would never be expected to have in public, let alone willfully on national television. She cooks and cleans and makes it nice—and then shouts at you about it.
There’s also Ramona, who is very single and ready to mingle following her divorce, which ended an ostensibly perfect marriage. Tinsley went from It Girl to Mugshot Girl after her own divorce, and has never really recovered. This scene with her mother, which finds a disheveled Tinsley weeping in pageant makeup after hosting The Big Apple Circus, is one of RHONY’s most poignant, and most representative.
If RHONY’s women are the Beales (and, indeed, Sonja’s tagline once referenced “Grey Gardens”), the women of RHOBH are still the Bouviers. Each category is interesting in its own way, and takes the right cast to pull off. RHOC, for instance, is struggling with a transition phase right now. At their heart, these shows use comedy and sometimes tragedy to crack the facade of elite superiority, documenting the pain money and fame can bring about.
This is a generally helpful lens through which to see the “Housewives” because it explains the tensions that make us laugh and keep us interested. If you think the “Housewives” warrant no serious consideration, that’s perfectly understandable. But certain franchises really do live in the intersection of reality television and docuseries. The good ones successfully explore and lampoon the ways wealth or its absence can wound women, can drive them to new heights, or drive them to the personal destruction.