While watching the women perched with straight backs atop zebra-print couches like so many oxpeckers, I suddenly had a realization about how the producers of all of these shows might not know entirely what makes this phenomenon so enjoyable. The unknowable algorithm behind Real Housewives success seems to be a combination of aspiration and viciousness. Of wanting to be these people and also wanting to feel better about ourselves because we aren’t them. It also includes heavy doses of drama: The times when the women pit themselves against each other, like hippos trying to edge each other out of the only oasis, are the times that we love the best.
But that’s not it at all. I was thinking about that when we were going over, once again, the fights between Bethenny and Ramona and Sonja and Tinsley. For my money, those were the weakest parts of what turned out to be an above-average season. What was the highlight for everyone, viewers and cast included? It wasn’t the times when the producers edged Tinsley and Sonja to talk about how hard it was to live together. It wasn’t Bethenny calling out Sonja for acting like an asshole. It was Mexico. The best was when these women were together having fun and — minus a few flareups that are inevitable when you have a spaceship full of hare-brained aliens — enjoying each other’s company.
Right now, the Real Housewives franchises that are thriving in terms of quality (if not in the ratings) are the ones where the women actually seem to enjoy each other’s company. The Real Housewives of Atlanta is some of the best reality television ever and those girls can forgive and forget all of their problems and have a throwdown party like none other. The Real Housewives of New York has been the same way for the past several seasons, where the alliances far outweigh the fractures. The same cannot be said for The Real Housewives of Orange County, where the cast can’t even stand to be in the same room with each other, or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where they all pretend that everything is fine but then passive-aggressively ice each other out at every occasion.
The real loser here is The Real Housewives of New Jersey. The multiseason Giudice family feud ripped that show apart because everyone got sick of it, it seemed like it was never going to end, and no one even remembered why it started in the first place. (It started, like all of these things do, with fame.) When Melissa and Teresa finally moved on, we were stuck with a cast full of Sopranos extras who weren’t fighting or enjoying each other’s company, a death knell that led to the nuclear option: bringing back known sociopath and professional Gollum impersonator Danielle Staub.
What I mean to say is, maybe focusing on these sort of made-up dramas isn’t where our attention should be in the first place. As Bethenny said, everyone in the audience and all of the castmates felt that the way they brought up Bethenny’s old skin flick was malicious. Why do we need to rehash it? We all feel the same way. We also all think that Tinsley might have seemed a little ungrateful, but that Sonja Tremont Morgan of the Look at the Size of the Crowd Morgans was way too hard on her. Do we have to step in this cow pie once again, because I’d like to spare my shoes if at all possible.
The funny thing about this reunion is that they pretty much all agreed about it. Ramona refused to take blame for what she said to Bethenny, of course, but she admitted her bad behavior this season and apologized. She said she had no maliciousness and although I don’t really believe it, getting a half-truth out of Ramona is like seeing Jon Snow’s ass in the Game of Thrones season finale. You want to see more, but you’ll take what you can get.
Like I said, the real fun of this reunion was Mexico. The real fun was not only getting to see the footage a second time — I had a GIF of Luann falling into the bushes tattooed on the inside of my eyelids — but also watching the women watch it. They weren’t hurt about what happened there, they didn’t think it was triggering, they didn’t have grievances to air. They were watching it and giggling along, like a bunch of war buddies who were deciding to remember the good times of what they all collectively struggled through.
That is the show I want to watch. It’s like having a vicarious group of friends who squabble, like we all do with our besties, but who ultimately enjoy the time they spend together. It’s people who enjoy making up just as much as they like throwing the silverware at each other. Now I have never had a heart-to-heart while naked in a pool, but I am headed to Fire Island for Labor Day weekend, so ask me again on Tuesday.
This is the grave miscalculation that I think the producers continue to make, by casting people who are not at all connected to the existing Housewives or people who are going to be so divisive that they’re going to rip what bonds already exist asunder. We’re not at a place right now where we can watch a postapocalyptic landscape devoid of joy. We’re already living in one of those. What we need is a place of comfort and happiness. We all need a little bit of coddling. We want mac-and-cheese TV. It’s bad for us, yes, but it’s also so damn good and brings us back to our happy place.
Luckily, that is just where the reunion ended. They went around the horn and they each gave their “rose” and “thorn” of the season and pretty much all of the thorns were them treating each other shabbily. That bad behavior was mostly recognized and excused, because the apologies, maybe for the first time ever, were actually sincere. The rose was the great times they all had together, growing and creating memories together, like everyone’s mom forces them to do on family vacation. The Housewives managed to bring a smile to my face as they all huddled around the center coffee table and clinked their shot glasses before taking their shot. The camaraderie was fun and didn’t seem forced. For the first time ever, I actually believed all of these women would be there voluntarily and that’s what I want to come back for in another season.