‘The Real Housewives’ Chose Chaos in 2021. Can It Survive?

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When a breathless Andy Cohen appeared on Today last month to announce the latest Real Housewives installment set in Dubai, fans on social media were less than enthusiastic.

Logistical questions arose regarding the city’s legal restrictions on certain social behaviors and whether its purportedly “no-nonsense” culture would meet the needs of Western viewers. Other Twitter users referenced the systematic exploitation of domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates and expressed discomfort in getting to know wealthy individuals from this particular region—as opposed to ones in America who treat their staff or, “servants,” as Ramona Singer would say, with the utmost dignity. Most notably, though, there was confusion over where the demand for this series was coming from. In the wake of Bravo’s most recent Housewives addition, Salt Lake City, becoming a smash hit, this news felt like a case of the network getting high off its own supply without any real input from its audience.

This thankless development shed light on a paradox regarding the Real Housewives’ cultural dominance. In 2021, you could argue that the franchise has never been bigger. Pending legal scandals involving Beverly Hills’ Erika Jayne Girardi (whose estranged husband, Tom Girardi, stands accused of stealing millions from his clients, including the orphans of plane-crash victims) and Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah (who’s battling conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering charges) drew national attention and received their own 20/20 specials. Salt Lake City’s Mary Cosby, meanwhile, has been accused by ex-Faith Temple members of running a religious cult. Real Housewives recapper for Vulture Brian Moylan and entertainment journalist Dave Quinn released behind-the-scenes, tell-all books that also commemorated the show’s footprint on television. This year also brought us Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip on Peacock, a spin-off that takes all-star housewives from different cities and puts them on a claustrophobic vacation, and the rebooted Real Housewives of Miami. And a star was born when Kathy Hilton made a long-awaited appearance on Beverly Hills, capturing America’s heart one confused facial expression at a time while propelling the Hilton name back into the spotlight.

Kathy Hilton Won ‘Real Housewives,’ Threw Paris a Wedding, and Finally Healed

To the average Housewives fan, this past year of events may seem like a Thanksgiving feast (and I didn’t even mention the cinematic contributions of Kyle Richards). But allow me to resist the notion touted by certain Bravo loyalists that 2021 marked a “golden age” of Real Housewives. In fact, I argue that, despite the reality juggernaut reaching new levels of visibility and rolling out self-celebratory content, 2021 saw the television empire begin to crumble.

In the past, Real Housewives seasons have centered on one jaw-dropping storyline to gratifying results, like when the women of Real Housewives of Orange County suspected Vicki Gunvalson’s then-boyfriend Brooks Ayers was faking cancer, or when former Atlanta housewife Porsha Williams accused Kandi Burruss and her husband of planning to drug and assault her, and it turned out that Burruss’ former best friend Phaedra Parks started the rumor. But this year more than any other revealed the limits of the “bombshell” as the standard model of storytelling as opposed to the more organic, quotidian conflict that attracted viewers to these programs in the first place. From stripper-gate on Atlanta to the Erika Jayne of it all on Beverly Hills to the Eddie cheating rumors on Potomac, these initially shocking moments failed to facilitate as much infighting and chaos as viewers hoped, resulting in unsatisfying conclusions that made us regret our interest in these stories by the time they were over.

This type of increasingly cast-produced (aside from Erika Jayne’s legal woes, obviously) drama is why Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, a show that, so far, relies on shocking and bizarre moments in lieu of compelling cast members and an interesting group dynamic, represents a dip in quality for the franchise to me. Writer Kyle Turner penned an insightful piece on the show’s hyper-awareness of well-established Housewives tropes and archetypes, pointing primarily to Jen Shah, whose artificial performance has made her tedious to watch even when she’s being chased by the FBI. While many housewives, even some of the best, are willing to manufacture moments to meet viewers’ expectations, Salt Lake City feels like the advent of a largely self-produced, post-Real Housewives era.

While many fans have been gleefully distracted by Ultimate Girls Trip and Salt Lake City, it’s impossible to forget the national disaster that was Real Housewives of New York City season 13 (that’s still ongoing). After casting its first Black housewife, former Fox News host Eboni K. Williams—a decision that was allegedly in the works before last year’s Black Lives Matter protests but nevertheless appeared like a response to it—the show proved the difficulty of integrating Black women and women of color into historically all-white spaces, as certain cast members were unprepared for discussions about race and frequently hurled microaggressions. (We saw this with Garcelle Beauvais and Crystal Kung Minkoff on Beverly Hills and Dr. Tiffany Moon on the now-axed Dallas as well). The frustratingly professional Williams was also a noticeably odd fit for the series, which thrives on messy, often drunken antics. Likewise, the show forewent a reunion for the first time due to dismal ratings and probably a fear of Ramona Singer’s mouth.

Out of the series that are in need of a facelift (no pun intended), RHONY seems like it will be the most difficult to operate on. Does the show go back to what was—a sitcom about politically incorrect, aging white women, or commit to being a more awkward show about clashing generations and cultures? Or should it get rid of its oldest housewives in favor of younger women like Leah McSweeney and become a real-life Sex and the City? Any modification that doesn’t include a housewife of color would spur accusations that the show gave up on its mission to diversify after one failed attempt. But from a Black female viewer who doesn’t think racially segregated Housewives shows are inherently regressive, I would appreciate not having to watch Black women be mistreated in my entertainment.

Ultimately, I don’t think fans as critical as me should totally panic, as every Real Housewives show encounters peaks and valleys. And some series’ low points have aged shockingly well years later. 2021 was a notably messy year, but the addition of old, reliable cast members to Orange County and Atlanta feels like the producers starting from square one and trying to rebuild. And Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip seems like a development that will continue to pay off in future seasons.

Contrary to the franchise’s brand, I’m looking forward to a little less chaos in the new year.

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