Why I’m ditching the guilt and leaning into my obsession with The Real Housewives

If people had put in the hours I have over the years – watching a fascinating, psychological game between the cast, the producers and the public – they’d be hooked

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Tuesday 08 September 2020 19:05 BST
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: season 9 reunion - trailer
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As much as I love it, I’ve always felt a creeping sense of guilt about my ability to sink into the bottomless pit of reality TV. I’ve plunged further since coronavirus, unfortunately. Sitting there, snacks in hand, night after night, guffawing at the antics of my favourite frenemies from afar and feeling simultaneously superior about our divergent lives.  

There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that, really. Just as coronavirus has plagued the world, the post-pandemic pressure of maintaining a sense of excellence is lording over us too. Even when it comes to what we do to relax.  

At the advice of my therapist, however, I’m trying to lean into it all now. With that in mind, I want to talk about the franchise that has, for so many of us, been a source of escape in the post-covid world: The Real Housewives.  

Yes, that dreaded collection, the one TV snobs delight in turning their noses up at, if only for the express purpose of catching a whiff of their own bulls**t. Because really, if they’d put in the hours I have over the years, if they saw what I saw – a fascinating, if somewhat ham-fisted, psychological game between the cast and the producers, and the producers and the public – they’d be hooked. That’s proven to be the case (anecdotally, at least) this year, with quite a few people I know admitting to binging the first couple of series in a matter of days after the arrival of some of the most popular Real Housewives series to UK Netflix in June.  

It got me thinking about what exactly makes one of those shows in particular so successful: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Just shy of 10 years after its debut, the show that in the first couple of seasons alone burst onto the scenes with an addiction storyline, a family feud, suspected domestic violence and a death is somehow still going strong. A current storyline is Denise Richards asking, “Would you be offended if your ‘friends’ talked about threesomes in front of your children?” It may sound asinine in the face of ruminating over the state of the nation, but it’s fun. There’s not an awful lot of that going around these days.

For the uninitiated, the Beverly Hills version is one of, if not the most “glamorous” of the shows. It is also one of the least “authentic” – or as close as you can get to it. You find yourself even more repulsed and astonished than usual by the signature displays of wealth, the shopping sprees in designer boutiques, the insistence on “glam squads” (a hair and makeup team) for casual dinner dates. But as you watch these women, some of them veterans in the game of reality TV, it’s the attempts to thwart the rules and pull the wool over our eyes that are the most entertaining aspects of the show,  for the precise reason that there is little, if anything, “real” about those scenes.  

We like a good cast member who pulls their weight, so to speak, someone who knows how to “play the game”. When the cast members attempt to create TV versions of themselves in their own image, some do so with more skill than others. And when they fail, we notice. Sometimes, watching that can be just as fascinating as the manufactured drama that’s supposed to pull us in.  

Denise Richards is the latest to fall into the trap of attempting to be a backseat director. In the current season, which concludes later this month, a strange feud with the other housewives around threesomes and a bombshell romantic fling rumour about Richards and former castmate Brandi Glanville (accusations Richards strongly denies), has given way to such a struggle for control.  

There have been tears, there have been cease and desists, and, as highlighted by the cast, the show and fans alike, filming has appeared to be deliberately ruined by Richards yelling out the word “Bravo”,  the home network of the Real Housewives franchise, in an attempt to cut short scenes that she didn’t like. Think Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, and her character Valerie Cherish’s cringe-worthy attempts to self-edit scenes in her own reality show, by insisting that she has to “do another” take, or demanding production to cut.

And then there’s the camp that’s angry with the show itself, for not doing a good enough job of concealing clearly set-up scenes, destroying the high-drama, soap opera-esque illusion we’re used to.  

I completely understand where that irritation comes from. Though these women truly owe us nothing, their jobs are mired in a fantasy that we – the fans – are all invested in. In the age of coronavirus, we, perhaps selfishly, need that sense of escape more than ever. So what if our illusion of choice happens to involve watching a cast of wealthy Caucasian women (with the exception of the new addition of actor Garcelle Beauvais to the lily-white cast) drink, shop and fight? It’s getting us – me at least – through the strangest time in many of our lives.  

Still, a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes mechanics doesn’t necessarily turn me off. In fact, it’s exactly what I’m here for. The puppet mastery strings have always been visible, we all know we’re being set up. The cast does too. I just wonder how much longer they’ll be able to keep up with the antics as we increasingly search for escape.

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