Reality TV. Many dismiss is it as a manufactured, overproduced celebration of debaucherous, soul-sucking fame-seekers, which is an admittedly accurate interpretation. However, I refuse to be criticized for my immense respect and adoration of this “black sheep” genre. I’ve had enough of pseudo-intellectuals in Birkenstocks looking down at me with disdain. “Oh, you really watch that?” Stick with waxing philosophy about whatever obscure French impressionist film you “discovered” whilst attending Vassar and leave me alone.
You may have an extensive arsenal of pretentious literary references, but I can recite Tyra Banks’ historic “We we were all rooting for you!” monologue from “America’s Next Top Model” in its entirety, so who’s the real winner here? It would be easy for me to simply conform and heap praise upon whatever streaming auteur series is considered “Hipster’s Choice” for this month. But after much thought and deliberation, I’ve decided that it’s time to emerge from silence and shame and finally speak my truth: The “Real Housewives of New York City” is currently the most prestige dramedy on television and demands to be credited as such.
When the Real Housewives franchise began, it was a relatively modest exploration of middle-aged, semi-wealthy women living in a Southern California gated community. The show was intended to be a juicy, voyeuristic look “behind the gates,” yet failed to generate any real conflict or buzz. The first few seasons of “The Real Housewives of Orange County’ are the television equivalent of every Lululemon-clad suburban mall mom you spot dropping off their Escalade with the Brio valet: vapid, manicured, hiding an absurd amount of demons and personal trauma behind Botox and overpriced athleisure.
Which brings us to Bravo’s second Housewives iteration, “The Real Housewives of New York.” Much like its predecessor, New York began inconspicuously enough. The show followed the interactions of several loosely-connected Manhattan women (and one Brooklynite), as they attended various dinner parties, fashion shows, and charity galas. The show was like dinner at a Red Lobster. Relatively painless, somewhat enjoyable, but the tacky decor and inevitable diarrhea prevent you from ever really wanting to go back again.
Seafood and diarrhea provide a fitting segway into the show’s recently-wrapped 10th season. It’s interesting to compare the passive-aggressive, quiet desperation of the first few years with the batshit lunacy of Season 10. To start, this year’s ensemble was absolutely stacked. There’s Bethenny, the once-humble underdog turned multimillion dollar business owner, who now vacillates between savvy, acid-tongued workhorse and the human embodiment of frayed wires; sharp, stinging, unfixable. There’s Sonja, the happy-go-lucky boozy broad of the Upper East Side, whose frequent musings about the downfall of her last marriage to a JP Morgan heir are full of gleeful, unhinged delusion. Of course, Ramona Singer, a cracked-out-Kathie-Lee-Gifford force of nature, reigns supreme as the show’s queen bee, a true icon whose unique brand of oblivious narcissism and unbridled psychosis remains unmatched.
What was once a muted docudrama on the Manhattan social climber set has transformed into a contemplative Noah Baumbach tragicomedy on the complexities of post-40s female friendships. We’ve had arrests, longtime friendships disintegrating, drunken antics, Murder Mystery dinner parties, funerals, Boat Trips from Hell, and blowout brawls. There’s also a moment where Luann, a former Countess, eats some bad Colombian paella and *literally* poops the bed. These women comprise the most three-dimensional, complicated, psychologically fraught, genuinely fascinating ensemble on television right now, yet everyone is too busy pretending that they enjoy “Westworld” to take notice. I ask you: Where is the SAG Award for Best Performance by an Ensemble in a Reality Television Program?
When it comes to depictions of “women of a certain age,” we’re usually left with some sanitized shlock about an elderly widow finding late-in-life love with the help of her trusty retirement community girlfriends. It’s like once every three years a studio remembers that women over 60 are people, too, so they compile a list of AARP cover models and ‘Grandmas Gone Wild’ cliches and voila: a moderately successful Mary Steenburgen-career destined to be broadcast on TBS every Wednesday night for the next 100 years.
“Real Housewives of New York,” on the other hand, does something completely different. It spotlights women who are unafraid to show that age doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom or happiness. It doesn’t ask them to apologize for being too messy, too drunk, too mean, too sexual, too angry, too honest. It’s a far cry from years past where women were commonly depicted as being the submissive, faultless voice of reason to a much more fleshed-out leading man. The show encourages them to not play by the rules and sacrifice individuality for fear of judgment, but rather embrace what makes them human.
I dare you to find a scene that’s as raw or nakedly vulnerable as Dorinda Medley revealing how her inability to find personal fulfillment after her husband’s death has led to a lifestyle of permanent self-doubt and alcohol-induced rage. “As bad as it was that Richard passed and all that bologna, I grew up so much. Like, the person that stood by his coffin is not the person that I am today, and I would have never become that person if he had lived,” she explains, in between tears. Nora Ephron couldn’t have scripted it better.
Reality TV may always be looked down upon at the redheaded stepchild of TV. But The Real Housewives of New York this year has proven that the genre can pull off giving us the mindless, breezy entertainment we expect while also providing universal truths about aging, modern relationships, and personal growth. What other show on TV right now is doing that? Game of Thrones, eat your heart out.