Vulture is holding the ultimate Reality Rumble to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture’s Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. As round one continues, Vulture reality recapper Brian Moylan pits The Amazing Race’s fifth season (with Mirna and Charla) against the second season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, when the usual RHoA craziness happened.
Comparing dramas and comedies is one thing, but presiding over a debate about two shows in the reality-television genre — which has more variations than Kim Kardashian has selfies — is a tall order indeed. Take perpetual Emmy winner The Amazing Race and The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the jewel in Andy Cohen’s tiara of aspirational douchebaggery. They’re so unalike that it’s not comparing apples t0 oranges but apples to kosher ballpark franks from the deli section.
They do have some common ground, of course. They’re both about the American dream. Well, at least about an American dream, the Lana Turner–being-turned-into-a-star-at-Schwab’s dream that we’ve all envisioned from time to time. The various Real Housewives, presumably, achieved the dream by marrying very rich men, and now they get to sit around all day eating bon bons and shouting at each other in their McMansions while drinking glasses of dry white wine. The Amazing Race indulges the same myth of being chosen from the countless hordes who want to be on this show (and how many times have we all heard, “I don’t like reality TV, but I would be on The Amazing Race”?), but also the dream of seeing the world one stop at a time. Okay, and the accompanying dream of returning home back home with a million George Washingtons in your bank account.
And like many products hawking the American dream, these shows are selling a bit of an illusion. The Amazing Race might be a “trip of a lifetime,” but it’s also colonialism on parade. Contestants tango in Argentina, farm honey in Kenya, and scarf down a shit-ton of caviar in Russia — but it’s all for entertainment rather than enlightenment. Meanwhile, the Housewives are also posing as one thing while completely in disguise. They’re supposed to be supported by rich men, but they’re really appearing on the show as a means to hawk their fashion line, their wig line, their music singles, and many other nonessential and trashy products. They’re here so that they can make money and buy more of the red-bottomed shoes that enraptured viewers in the first place.
In its defense, The Amazing Race is one of the few competitive reality shows (especially on CBS) that casts a diverse cluster of people. Well, they’re still mostly white, but there are a lot of different kinds of white people, including some that are overweight, some that are old, and one that is a little person. Season five of The Amazing Race had an especially good mix. The ones we rooted for on each leg of the race were married, middle-aged winners Chip and Kim, who were sweet and wonderful (and also people of color); they deserved their good fortune. But let’s not forget Colin and Christie, a dating couple that we loved to hate; “Bowling Moms” Linda and Karen, so inspirational in their normalcy; Kami and Karli, a set of devious twins of the corn; and Brandon and Nicole, “dating models” who were also Christian and the sort of people who refused to shave their heads in India to win a leg of the race because they didn’t want to hurt their precious careers. (Seen these two on any Pantene billboards lately? Yeah, that’s what I thought.)
But what sets The Amazing Race ahead in the casting department for season five is Mirna and Charla, or “Mirna and Schmirna,” as they were not-so-affectionately known. Charla is the aforementioned little person, who says in episode one that she wants to do the race to prove that a little person can do anything. Yet as soon as the race starts, she and her cousin complain that no one stopped to help them during a crisis. Similarly, Mirna would tell Charla that she couldn’t do something — like carry 100 pounds of beef on her back — but then she’d cheer her diminutive relative on as she completed a task, reminding Charla that she could do anything. But what really made these two great TV was not their oblivious contradictions, nor their bleating Baltimore accents; it was that they were court jesters running with very competitive bulls, type-A contestants who would do pretty much anything to land on the mat first. Charla and Mirna were just having a great time and being themselves, injecting random cartwheels into their runs and thanking Eva Peron when they did well in Argentina. Mirna also had a strange crush on The Amazing Race automaton Phil Keoghan (to call him a host would be doing a disservice to people who actually host reality shows), hugging him at the end of each race segment. When these two were eliminated about halfway through, all the cringe-worthy enjoyment of the season left along with them.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta, meanwhile, is stocked full of characters you will never forget — and they’re there, week in and week out. NeNe Leakes is arguably one of the best reality-TV-show characters of all time, who is relatable, fun, and quick with a catchphrase, when she’s not being as vicious as drug-resistant gonorrhea. This season is her first with short hair, which makes her somewhat more powerful. The Ethel to her Lucy was Kim Zolciak, the only white cast member who blithely burns through life with a wine glass, jewelry, and an SUV that are all so big you don’t believe that they exist in reality. And this is all bankrolled by her “Big Poppa,” a mysterious married millionaire who doesn’t even want his real name on the show. They’re sort of like Mirna and Schmirna if they cared more about their clothes and liked alcohol a little too much. A short way of saying that is: They’re just like Mirna and Schmirna, but better.
Season two of RHoA was the first to employ that tactic of pruning the boring ladies now standard throughout the franchise. Season two wisely replaced DeShawn Snow with Grammy winner Kandi Burress, who was one of the first actually successful Housewives who made her own money, writing songs “No Scrubs” for TLC and “Bills, Bills, Bills” for Destiny’s Child. She was helping “housewife” become a misnomer, moving the shows to focus instead on successful women with both strong businesses and strong families. Kandi was smart, talented, funny, and had a complicated relationship with her fiancé (who would be killed after the season wrapped). She also wrote “Don’t Be Tardy for the Party,” the single Kim Zolciak’s recorded that is a certifiable, un-ironic jam. She was the kind of person we all want to be, but with enough flaws that we all want to tell her to live her life. That is the perfect archetype for a reality show.
While Kim Zolciak is a model of aspirational wealth, The Amazing Race’s stock-in-trade is its relatability. I’m convinced that’s the reason why it has won all but two of the competitive reality show Emmy awards. It certainly isn’t the best reality show (Top Chef, Project Runway, Survivor, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have routinely been far more enjoyable); Emmy voters like it for its premise. They see that it’s a race around the world and think, I want to go on that! I want to take my nearest and dearest partner and travel around the world doing crazy shit! This especially applied to the fun things that happened in season five. To this day, the Zorb (a giant inflatable ball) that contestants rolled down a hill in during the New Zealand leg of the race seems to me like a more compelling tourist activity than seeing stupid Hobbiton. Even when everyone had to stop a bunch of slap shots from a Russian goalie (which was dramatically harder than it sounds), you still want to try your hand at winning a million dollars while seeing the world.
The thing about RHoA is that no one viewing it — at least no one with more sense than Kim Zolciak has wigs — would ever want to be on it. It must be a nightmare not being able to go to your child’s King Tut–themed birthday party without there being a wine-throwing incident. But we all want to be flies on the wall of a crazy party. We all want to see the women and even be around them, but only as a passive, gawking observer for an hour every week. And that is the franchise’s appeal, and a point that stands in stark contrast to The Amazing Race. The latter casts people to root for, like the Bowling Moms. I almost cried when they lost the rock climbing challenge that did them in and again when Chip and Kim, two of the most deserving players ever, took home the big prize. The only time I cry watching RHoA is when I am confronted with Dwight’s nose, and it was not sweet tears of emotion. I never root for anyone to do anything other than do something unpredictable.
Like planes run on fuel, most reality shows run on conflict. Usually The Amazing Race is all about the conflict created by the two people paired together and there were certainly couples that bickered their way through the entire race (like the Lockhorns-ish Colin and Christie, who shocked the nation by actually getting engaged at the end of the show). Other than that, there isn’t much actual conflict; it’s merely competition. That is what makes this a “classy” reality show. Yes, Mirna might get called a bitch every now and again by fellow contestants, but there is no actual hair-pulling. Housewives has that. It’s the difference between cheering for Kerri Strug and cringing at the Tonya Harding scandal.
But guess who we’re still talking about years later? Yes, Tonya Harding, the crazy knee-capper (allegedly). And as far as on-air knee-capping goes, no one will ever best Sheree Whitfield, the best brawler ever to be cast on a reality television program, and season two was her prime. If I were majoring in American Studies right now, my thesis would be about Sheree’s argument with Anthony the party planner, which, for my money, is the best confrontation ever televised. It is the Frost/Nixon, Frasier/Ali, Palin/Biden of Housewives fights. It is about whether or not Sheree’s party planner has set up a meeting between her and a poet so that a poet can write a poem about her for her party. Seriously. It culminates with Sheree delivering one of her immortal lines, “Who gonna check me, boo?” Before we continue, do me a favor and just watch the clip below. You will feel what I feel on random Tuesdays at 2 a.m. when there is nothing I want to do but watch Sheree fight with a party planner. I would never in a million years behave like that, but I want to watch people that do. I never want to stop watching people that do.
Just a few episodes later, Sheree is back at it and fighting with Kim Zolciak. The best part of the fight is Sheree headed out into the parking lot of a chain restaurant and tugging on Kim’s wig. The second best part is NeNe, like the rest of the audience, tottering out on her high heels to not miss a moment of the action. The third best part is that Michael Lohan is somehow involved. Sure, these are only two of the fights these women got in, but add up all the other petty squabbles and half-hearted reconciliations, and it was really a banner season for Housewives interrelations.
Critics of such “ladies fighting” shows will say that the drama is somehow constructed or massaged. Sure, these women might not hang out together when the cameras are off and Bravo might be throwing their parties and paying for their vacations, but the turmoil is actual. I have seen NeNe act on Glee and she is not a good enough actress to pull off the emotion you see onscreen. There is some real in this reality. But The Amazing Race comes across as being even more manufactured than Housewives. No one goes on a vacation like that. No couple can afford the time away or the expenses involved with something like that, and, even if they could, they’re able to walk away from any intense altercations they might have with each other on their journey. And they’re not rushing around with a pack of fellow yahoos trying to hail cabs in the craziest corners of third-world countries. The Emmy voters may think that this means the show is somehow more authentic or higher brow, but I’m not buying it.
Reality may be about creating fake environments to bring out the best and worst in people, but there needs to be some room for genuine identification. That can never happen on The Amazing Race. Here the draw is the challenges, the race itself, not the people. As much as I want to, I will never get to roll in a Zorb in New Zealand. But do you know what I will do? I will have a birthday party and fall out with my friends and go to a friend’s fashion show, even though their clothes are awful (sorry, She by Sheree). If all reality shows are a train wreck, then The Amazing Race is a train wreck on Mars and RHOA is a collision down the street from my house. I’ll never be in either, but one will actually affect my life.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta can have a verifiable effect on your reality. These women teach us how to or not to behave when the successes and tragedies of our lives unfold. They let us know how that you should be there for your friends when you can, and what to do when one comes for you in the parking lot of a crappy chain restaurant. The Amazing Race teaches us that we want to go on vacation, a need so basic and human that it doesn’t really need teaching, and it’s the same lesson over and over, like learning your multiplication tables every year until you graduate. The Real Housewives of Atlanta is a forever morphing and evolving life form, which has gone from Sheree Whitfield to the Gone With the Wind fabulosity of batshit insane beauty queen Kenya Moore. The Amazing Race is the pretty picture you took that one time you went to Mexico and forgot about in the bottom of a box. The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the absolutely insane girlfriend you had in high school, the one who taught you everything you know about love — and hair-pulling.
Winner: The Real Housewives of Atlanta, season two.
Brian Moylan has written about TV and pop culture for Gawker and the Guardian, and is currently the editor in chief of Nerve. He also recaps The Real Housewives of New York for Vulture.