Now in its third season, The Real Housewives of New York is just past its ripening point; the ladies and their drama have turned from firm to mushy (and we’re not talking about their bodies, which are more toned than ever). The catfights have gotten cattier, the personalities have turned from quirky to sour, and even the formerly likable Jill Zarin is disposing of friends like last year’s “It” bags. It’s not the cast’s fault, really. The excitement of season one — Alex and Simon’s bizarreness, Bethenny’s relationship troubles, LuAnn’s snobbery — felt at least semi-organic: Here are some wealthy women in all their hilarious vapidity … enjoy! But fast-forward to season three, with Jill and Bethenny fighting over an item in the Daily News and Kelly posing for Playboy, and now you’re just tuning into the life and times of B-List reality stars. And reality stars make the worst reality stars.
Think of The Osbournes. Sure, Ozzy was already famous at the outset, but what made the show so weird and watchable in its first two seasons was how ordinary (if odd) his family life was. Yet in seasons three and four, you could see how fame was changing the kids’ lives — Jack became a record-label talent scout and had drug problems; everyone was chased by the paparazzi. Suddenly their bickering wasn’t lovable, it came off like the amped-up whining of spoiled brats aware of their own importance, and the show petered out. The Hills (about to begin its sixth and final season) hoped to avoid The Osbournes’ fate by trying to hide its cast’s fame, yet the reality-star death cycle still began in the third season when Heidi and Spencer became, well, Heidi and Spencer. Plus, the cast are such tabloid fixtures that the producers’ efforts to play down their gossipy lives and fashion lines just feels weird. Though some shows can last indefinitely — Dog the Bounty Hunter, The Deadliest Catch — these are series that are organized around a job or activity. They don’t fight with their friends, they fight fish and crime! As for vapid E! fare like The Girls Next Door, they also get a pass because they are at no risk for viewers to ever have anything personally invested in them.
The off-putting dissonance comes from seeing reality stars navigating the same world they used to, but with a new perspective of entitlement, self-absorption, and a sense of their own “bigness.” The Real World solved that problem with their Real World/Road Rules Challenges. Shipped off to a remote, incubated location, these reality veterans can act as fake as they’d like — amping up behavior for more camera time, playing up a persona that they think people want to see — because, safely caged in their reality-star pen, there’s no “real world” to put their ridiculousness in perspective. They’re not on a star trip; they’re just a bunch of loudmouths eating free Subway sandwiches.
But when a buzzy cast is set in the real world, they have two successful seasons before the show turns. Then they inevitably morph into pseudo-celeb monsters, mugging for the camera and creating waves for the producers’ sakes. “We were told, in no uncertain terms — and I wouldn’t say it’s affected me, but it’s affected some of the other girls — that if they didn’t bring it on, they wouldn’t be holding an apple,” Jill Zarin recently told the Daily Beast about the change in the show’s tone. The first season of the New Jersey version of Housewives was fascinating and funny — you really felt like you were inside the gaudy world in which these women lived. The second premieres on May 3, and with their every move already being chronicled by Us Weekly, we’re worried we might not even have to wait for season three for things to fall apart.