I have several key takeaways from “Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip,” a brave and inevitable experiment finally undertaken by Bravo in 2021. The network understands it’s become less of a cable channel and more of an international fashion lifestyle brand, which is great news for the bottom line of NBCUniversal as it tries to lure niche audiences to Peacock.
From the 2009 debut of “Watch What Happens Live” to “Play by Play” to “BravoCon,” executives have deliberately courted brand enthusiasts beyond casual viewers, fully aware their content engenders debate and speculation, both of which can be monetized in the era of niche programming and social media. It’s ESPN aimed straight at the fairer sex and our general interests.
“Ultimate Girls Trip” brings a collection of A-List housewives from top franchises together at a ridiculously posh Turks and Caicos compound for a booze-fueled melee that could have been written as fan fiction. What does it tell us about ourselves? About what it means to be human? About our instincts, our mortality? Not much, but that’s fine.
1. The Fourth Wall Is Gone
It held mightily for more than a decade, but the fourth wall has officially crumbled to the ground. Before Instagram and the proliferation of Twitter, Bravo reinforced that fourth wall with all its might. “Girls Trip” is perhaps the best symbol of the network’s pivot.
Some of this was forced on producers by social media, but it’s also just the inevitable consequence of building up so many thousands of hours of content. There’s a history to tell, and those procedural insights affect the way people watch now.
On “Girls Trip,” the housewives seemed intentionally to dish out scraps of behind-the-scenes gold. Its premiere came on the heels of “Not All Diamonds And Rosé: The Inside Story of The Real Housewives from the People Who Lived It,” a book full of backstories published by Andy Cohen’s imprint, in which Cohen and the producers repeatedly remember their efforts to protect the fourth wall.
More and more, the network is letting its reality stars break the fourth wall on their respective shows, even taking on production, from the “Housewives” to “Vanderpump Rules” to, of course, “Winter House.” At this point, when viewers have so much access via social media and have invested so many years in the women’s lives, their fame is a huge part of the story. It informs their dynamics and their drama in ways that can’t be controlled. “Girls Trip” is Bravo embracing that.
2. The Experiment Needs Tweaks
Producing “Girls Trip” cannot have been an easy feat. Bravo needed the right mix of housewives, the right time and place, and the right structure. “Girls Trip” didn’t quite strike that elusive balance.
The action felt scripted and forced beyond what most Bravo viewers will tolerate on a normal “Housewives” show. It’s heartening to know the second installment, which has already been filmed, was set at Blue Stone Manor because the legendary RHONY episodes that unfolded at Dorinda Medley’s Berkshires’ estate should be the exact model for this new show. It shouldn’t feel like “Road Rules,” it should feel like anarchy.
3. Kyle Is Key
Kyle Richards is nothing if not consistent. Never during her 12-year run on the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has she had a bad season. She isn’t always “the straw that stirs the drink” (although she can be). She does, however, manage to be consistently entertaining without ever crossing the line into intolerable territory. That fate befell Vicki Gunvalson (I’d still take her back), Countess Luann, Lisa Vanderpump, and others.
But “Girls Trip” really highlighted Kyle’s importance to RHOBH. Even in a different environment with a totally different cast, she managed to be consistent, bringing the drama without bringing the groans, willing to fight but willing to laugh, likable but not relatable. She’s the epitome of a “Real Housewife”: rich, vain, and materialistic with just the right touch of self-awareness.
4. RHONY Reigns Rupreme (Followed Closely by RHOA)
Bravo doesn’t get better than the “Real Housewives of New York.” It took about zero seconds for Ramona and Luann to get nude and slobber over the concierge. Bottle episodes are the ultimate test of a good reality franchise. It’s why RHONY’s Berkshires episodes are a model for “Girls Trip.”
When you have a cast that needs almost no producing to create incredible TV, you have a cast that will create good TV outside the bottle too. It means they’re sufficiently authentic and their dynamics are too.
Ramona and Luann needed no producing on “Girls Trip,” but even when they got it, they were funnier. It’s unthinkable that Sonja Morgan won’t be featured on the second installment of the show because nobody is more entertaining in those circumstances than her.
On “Girls Trip,” other housewives and franchises had their moments (especially Atlanta!) but Ramona and Luann are just naturally entertaining. The Jersey housewives, for instance, are incredibly entertaining when family drama crops up. But the RHONY women could literally just read the phonebook and it would still be great television.
Bravo needs to protect this endangered franchise at all costs.
The women Bravo cast for “Girls Trip” didn’t need such heavy-handed production, but the mix could have been better. The show was at its best when the women were bonding over the singular experience of being a Bravolebrity, having your family’s best and worst moments broadcast on television, commoditizing your personal life, pioneering a genre that changed with social media. They don’t need games to open up or hunky concierges to shepherd them through menopause. (They mostly need alcohol.)
The curiosity here is similar to Janis’s description on “Mean Girls” of seeing teachers outside school—it’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. We know these women, we’re entertained by them. Now we want to see them walk on their hind legs.
Reality television is good when it’s both entertaining and real. Shows like the “Bachelor” are just entertaining (to some people), but truly excellent reality TV fulfills the same goal as documentaries like “Grey Gardens.” It’s true that “reality” is always going to be something of an illusion, unless you’re watching the Big Brother feed 24/7. (I would do that with Blue Stone Manor.) Even then, people know they’re being filmed, rendering their incentives and motivations distorted.
But there’s something interesting about watching people live their lives in that very specific context, so Bravo acknowledging that when it’s salient really only enhances the drama.