There’s a moment in the second episode of Luann and Sonja: Sorry It’s Not Legacy that is perfect. Luann meets a man in a bar called “The Barn,” which looks like a dumpster with a door cut out of the side and a giant piece of plywood placed over the top. The man, haggard, covered in tattoos, looking like he worked at the local Jiffy Lube for three decades with the grease to match, approaches Luann and he has a long, gray beard sprouting from his chin, and it’s held together in a tight ponytail using elastic bands. Luann, dressed in a pink top and matching cowboy hat like she got lost on her way to the Barbie premiere, says, “It looks like a real goat-ee!” As she strokes it, the man lets out a loud “Bahhh.” Luann replies with a “Bahhh” of her own and then leads the man around the bar by his goat-ee.
What’s perfect about it is what is perfect about the show. Luann shouldn’t be there, but she is. That man shouldn’t be talking to Luann, but he is. Luann could have been like, “Ew, you’re gross,” and made fun of him while walking away, but she didn’t. This could have turned into a fight between Lu and Sonja Tremont Morgan of the Pads for Leaky Liposuction Morgans, but it doesn’t. This show upends everything we know about Housewives — the rhythms, the tropes, the conspicuous consumption — to create something shockingly nice. Dare I say … it’s downright wholesome.
The idea is simple enough: Take two reality stars and drop them in the middle of Benton, Illinois, a town with about as many residents as these two women have ex-boyfriends, and see what happens. Some would say that it’s like The Simple Life, the foundational 2003 reality show where Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie played spoiled California kids who go work in a small town. While the setup is the same, it’s the tone that is entirely different. In The Simple Life, the girls were always making fun of the rubes that they were forced to spend time with. They didn’t want to do their chores, they didn’t take their job at Sonic seriously, and the townspeople hated them.
Everything is different here. In the opening scenes, we meet reality-show producer Russell Jay-Staglik, who worked not only on The Simple Life and The Real World but also on several Kardashian spinoffs, and we learn that Benton is his hometown and his mother and twin brother still live there. This break of the fourth wall is needed because we see that he (and therefore the show) not only has affection for the town and his people, but he’s not going to invite anyone in who is going to disturb that.
We end up with a show that is produced almost in the opposite way from Real Housewives. Instead of pitting the women against each other to create drama, it’s joined them together to create comedy. But it’s never cruel, and it’s never mean. All parties are in on the joke and having a great time. It reminds me of Jury Duty, a show that could have been totally mean but instead ends up being incredibly sweet. That’s why Luann and Sonja are perfect for this assignment. Yes, they have all the glitz and glam of your average Housewife, but they are both dedicated to getting a laugh. You don’t know comedy until you’ve seen Sonja Morgan hijack someone’s mobility scooter and destroy a storage room with it.
That’s why I think a more fitting comparison is not The Simple Life but Schitt’s Creek, a show that poked fun at both sides of the class divide while keeping everyone’s humanity intact. That’s a tough balance for a reality show — particularly a Bravo reality show — to pull off. But I think one thing people always underestimate about the Housewives is just how naturally funny they are and how well the show brings that out.
I mean, we just need Sonja on our televisions (or, more likely, phone and computer screens) saying, “I carry several pairs of underwear in my purse and it’s already a three-panty day.” That’s funny! And what real fans know — that those panties are probably already soiled and that Sonja is going to wash them out in the nearest bidet — just makes it even funnier.
Also funny: hearing from the townspeople excited that they’re going to meet a Kardashian (a good guess based on Jay-Staglik’s IMDb) or the Rock, and meanwhile, Sonja and “Leeanne” get off the plane. Yes, their PJ might seem glamorous until you know it had to circle because there was livestock on the runway. First stop is the Motel Benton, where they’ll be staying. Akash, the good-humored owner, asks the women what they think of it. “Well, the roof is solid,” Sonja says, trying to find the only nice thing she can about a place with wood paneling on the cinder-block walls.
Sure, they aren’t that nice about their accommodations or about the car that they’re given to tool around town. It’s from 1985 and looks like a decommissioned police vehicle with a giant Benton Municipal Airport logo on the side of it, and there is no air-conditioning in the 95-degree heat. Sonja calls it a Flintstone car they have to work with their feet, and she’s not wrong. Luckily, the next day, Mayor Fred delivers them what appears to be a brand-new pickup with a red bow on the top. Not a giant one from a car commercial, a tiny one that you would buy at Walgreens to put on Christmas presents. But Fred is so happy to give it to them, and they’re so happy to accept it that the whole incident feels like a warm hug or the annihilating embrace of stepping into the air-conditioning on a blistering day.
After all the introductions are made in the first episode, the pair get a list of tasks to accomplish in their five weeks in Illinois. They include building a new park, organizing a Christmas in July celebration, increasing tourism (good luck), upgrading the animal shelter, and planning an end-of-the-summer performance spectacular. After dispatching with their official duties, they engage in an unofficial activity that the locals call “noodling” or “hogging.”
When they arrive at Crappie Lake (pronounced CRAW-pee, after the fish), Sonja gets her flotation noodle and immediately farts into it and thanks her local deity that it wasn’t diarrhea. We came for Housewives, and we got fart jokes. I think it’s a pretty even trade. They find out that “noodling” is a way of fishing with your hands. We get a good explanation of how it’s done and why, but I don’t quite understand it, because as soon as I found that out, I was shouting, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” at the TV with my hands over my eyes.
Gamely, both ladies get in the lake, but Sonja is instead trying to catch the only fish that she cares about, the Trouser Trout. Luann, on the other hand, dives right into that lake and pulls out a catfish bigger than Andy Cohen’s firstborn. And with that, the episode ends more happily and delightfully than I ever thought it would. The 30 minutes flew right by, but I was happy we got the second episode immediately.
That one was just as good, if not better. It starts off with Sonja showing off her vibrator to Akash by accident, and then both of the ladies, hoping the local theater director would be gay. Of course he’s not! All the gays left this town to go to Hollywood to be reality-television producers. I have a feeling that gays are one of Benton, Illinois’s, major exports. (Not because they’re mean to them, just because there’s no one there for them to date!)
After a meeting with the (sadly) straight director Bill King, the ladies head to the local fire department because they’re both feeling a little horny. As they pull up, Luann is adjusting her skimpy outfit, and Sonja is slapping on a pair of false eyelashes faster than Bill DeBlasio announced he’s poly now. There is no one in the Housewives universe with more game than Luann de Lesseps. She gives a master class on flirting when she locks eyes with Alex, one of the firefighters. Though he has a crooked grin, he’s the hottest of the guys there, and Luann homes right in. Too bad Alex doesn’t seem to be picking up what she’s putting down. Wait, is he the only gay left in Benton?
When trying to get laid doesn’t work out, the women go to the auditions for their variety show. The first act is a girl named Carly doing an interpretive dance of the Saw movies, complete with Jigsaw makeup. She is contorting and wobbling around the stage like the girl from The Ring coming to attack you, and now I need a whole show about Carly. Who is she? What is she doing here? What made her so dark-minded? Get this girl a reality show and a Cameo immediately. We also see a kid on a unicycle, a harpist, a violin player, and the world’s worst Chris Daughtry impersonator. Fire them all and make this Carly’s one-woman show, I beg you.
Since Luann didn’t manage to get anyone to turn on her hose at the fire station, Sonja has to prove she can still get some when they go to the Barn. I already talked about the man with the goat-ee, but the other contingent there that night was Housewives fans; the local ladies turned up to say, “We’ve watched you from the beginning,” and it was so sweet to see that our girls have at least a few stans among the 8,000 residents. Sure, there are like six of them, but that’s more than zero.
Sonja’s not concerned with them; she’s concerned with her friend Billy Richard, though it is pronounced the French way. He’s from Louisiana and he’s up for the weekend to go mudding with his friend, which I guess is riding around in trucks in the mud. Now, Billy is just about as hot a specimen of man meat as you’re going to get in Benton, and Sonja lures him in. Does she have a strategy of conversation, body language, and dropping hints like Luann does? No, she gets him to take his shirt off, they staple it to the ceiling, and then she says, “You’re leaving with me.” Now, we never see them consummate their relationship or even leave. We just see them get in the car together, but as sure as I believe that Lea Michele can’t read, I also believe that Sonja Morgan totally pounded Billy in her hotel room. And good for her! I would have done the same, though it appears like my only option might be Firefighter Alex. At least Sonja remains eternally on brand.
Even slutty Sonja (I use “slutty” as a compliment) makes the show even better because it’s real. If you’ll allow me to get idealist and poetic for a second, maybe this is what the country needs right now. It seems like we’re more divided than ever, and it’s along political lines, yes, but also the divide between rural and urban life. Here are two city slickers finding out about the humanity of country folks and some rural people benefitting from what the big city has to offer them. These people are surely Trump voters (but, hey, so is Sonja), and they’re getting along with the liberal elite, and both groups are learning a little bit of something from each other. Maybe we can all remember this next time we want to talk about the “liberal media” for jokes about “flyover country.” Maybe Sonja and Lu are going to single-handedly (well, they have four hands between them, but you know what I mean) save our democracy! Maybe! Or maybe we’re just going to laugh at a lot more fart jokes. Honestly, the second outcome is much more likely.