I don’t blame Eboni K. Williams for the “Real Housewives of New York City’s” mediocre 13th season. I blame the executives who tasked her with transforming the show to shield themselves from silly criticism.
RHONY is the gem of the Housewives franchise, a “Grey Gardens”-level cultural artifact that entertains as much as it chronicles the rot of America’s elite. It’s one of the greatest reality series ever and one of Bravo’s most important constants.
Recent news the show hit a ratings low spurred a series of tabloid reports alleging chaos behind the scenes, as producers reportedly mulled axing Ramona Singer (a terrible idea) and a competing leak pointed the finger at Williams for politicizing the show.
Playing the Part
Williams is not the problem. The network is. Actually, she’s succeeded better than anyone else at playing the role Bravo asked her to play.
In Williams, Bravo wanted a “finger-wagger.” Shep Rose unintentionally coined that term in the latest season of “Southern Charm,” criticizing new castmate Leva Bonaparte for ceaselessly interjecting sanctimonious political lectures into their social interactions.
Her example is an instructive one. Without the burden of enlightening everyone in every episode, Bonaparte would be a great addition to the show. But in the role she was presumably cast to play, she has to force these difficult conversations instead of letting them happen naturally. Bravo has planted similar women in just about every show, to varying degrees of annoyance.
When politics has occurred naturally in Bravo drama over the years, it’s often been fascinating. (Think Camille Grammar’s reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.) When it’s forced as a constant plot point, it’s exhausting, contrived, and meaningless. It tells us nothing except that thirsty D-list celebrities can clumsily recite publicist-approved platitudes.
Undermining the Premise
It also undermines the premise of Bravo’s programming. These characters are not protagonists. They are almost entirely antiheroes meant to entertain us with their bad behavior, not model the allegedly respectable conduct of our gaudy American aristocracy. The audience’s amusement and disgust reinforce our collective notions of moral behavior.
It’s true, having one or two sane characters in the mix helps bring out that contrast. But most of the public is smart enough to understand that people who sell their privacy for a reality television career aren’t moral paragons. That’s why we watch.
When Williams recently presented an explicit embrace of the Kendi-esque progressive-or-bigot-binary, insisting that in 2021 people are either racist or anti-racist, there was one useful moment of clarity. The radicalization of mainstream speech standards is baffling to people who don’t accept the cultural left’s fringey new definition of bigotry, which is why left-of-center women like Luann de Lesseps were floored by what Williams said.
Several of the New York housewives have long been suspected of supporting Donald Trump. Whether or not they voted for him, they took offense to Williams’ implied accusation of bigotry. Williams, an African-American former Fox News contributor, said her own mother had voted for Trump and that voting for him wasn’t bigoted if it was motivated by economics.
Again, this dust-up was instructive because it forced Williams to amend her extreme statement and grapple with her mother’s vote, while showing how the cultural left’s manipulation of language makes these conversations impossible, especially on an intergenerational basis.
But episode after episode this season, Williams swerves to broach racial conversations, lobbing around terms like “white fragility” to take RHONY onto Woke Tumblr. This would be interesting if, again, it weren’t shoehorned into every single episode to a totally counterproductive effect.
I don’t mind race and politics on Bravo. It would be unnatural not to talk about those issues, especially since the women genuinely do have some problems. (Remember: They’re antiheroes!)
But constantly forcing the housewives into political conversations drains their interactions of authenticity by steering them into contrived plot points, exhausting viewers, normalizing controversial elite narratives about race relations, and inflaming pre-existing divisions. It improves nothing except the odds that Bravo executives keep their jobs instead of getting axed when keyboard warriors fabricate controversies on Twitter that don’t bother the vast majority of viewers and do not reflect anger at genuine immorality.
Sentient viewers of Bravo’s reality fare realize the shows are supposed to feature antiheroes. Protagonists sneak in every once in a while to provide contrast, but the point of the shows is to document the material and social excesses of wealth and status. You’re not supposed to be cheering for them. Bravo either forgets this or is willing to sacrifice the premise to protect itself from bloggers, at least in the short term.
The housewives aren’t supposed to sound like Oberlin professors. Indeed, that’s kind of the point. If Bravo thinks they should all have acceptable politics, does Bravo think they should all have acceptable moral codes? That would involve the network implicitly disowning a whole lot of its best programming, past and present.
The Finger-Wagger Strategy
Shifting to a “finger wagger” model is not constructive because it detracts from the varying degrees of authenticity that have to exist in order for the shows to succeed and undermines the antihero premise that’s necessary for the audience to buy into the drama. Why would we watch a bunch of rich people make great life choices? Because we admire them so much?
Yet on RHONY, production is purposefully forcing situations that repeatedly urge Eboni to broach racial issues with the rest of the cast, forcing them to center their drama around forced conversations. It’s not fun and it’s not constructive, which explains the serious ratings dip. It’s not about the silly “go-woke-go-broke” cliche. (One “insider” blamed “wokeness” for the ratings.) It’s not about the audience’s white fragility. It’s just about the quality of the show.
Push back on any moments of racism the show produces, sure. But don’t turn them into contrived forums for social debate. It can’t be forced and it can’t be forced as a driving plot point. Again, this isn’t just RHONY. This is Bravo’s clear strategy to fend off critiques from liberal Instagram fan pages and Barnard graduates writing for The Cut. It’s making their product worse. It’s making race relations worse, too.
Bring back Dorinda. Bring back Tinsley. Let them loose in the Hamptons with a camera crew, a case of Ramona Pinot, and their own impulses. We’ll learn a lot more, and laugh a lot more too.