At this, the end of the spring television season, it seems that it might be time to go ahead and own up to something.
I am all about the good television. There’s nothing better than TV that makes you whip out the Beckett or Dickens comparisons, or TV that seems transcendent of the form and leaves you gasping for appropriate superlatives. That sort of television is why I do what I do.
I also watch The Real Housewives of New York City. I have seen bits and pieces of all of the Real Housewives franchises, actually, but have been watching this season of RHNYC with increasing astonishment? Horror? Fascination? Dismay? Disgust? …Pleasure? Well, clearly, since I kept watching it week after week. These things can be said about many, many reality shows, and I don’t necessarily want to think about that phenomenon more broadly right now, but I do want to think a little about why this specific season of RHNYC has been extra specially bonkers.
It’s been clear that this season of the show has attained truly impressive levels of insanity, and that it’s come from a few different sources. Several intense feuds have helped keep everyone at a high pitch of emotional angst, thanks to the perpetually shifting allegiances and weeks-old betrayals that often flare up again in the presence of new insults. Each woman has some motivating trauma in their personal lives that has helped keep them at each other’s throats, and however scripted the vacations, parties, lunches, and chance meet-ups may be, the real ire these women feel for each other has been quite convincing. The biggest feud has been between Jill and Bethenny, whose ongoing rancor splits the group into teams and sparked further drama between Alex and Jill, LuAnn and Bethenny, Ramona and Jill, and basically every permutation thereof. In addition to all of that, Kelley’s apparent breakdown fueled many episodes worth of anger, speculation and finally, resigned concern for her mental health (an angle which the women have agreed is best but which the show refuses to deal with).
Within the last several years, television has begun to capitalize on the pleasure of watching a show that’s hard to follow, which can be said about everything from Lost to The Wire to Private Practice. After a season like this, there’s no question that Real Housewives has become as crazy and complex a multi-plot soap as any scripted show. Why is Alex mad at Jill again? Oh right, there was that thing Jill said about Alex’s kids at that department store party, which calls back to some snide comments Luann made in season one. What has made this show so much more complicated to follow as a viewer is that half of what fuels these intricate, constantly shifting relationships happens outside the perspective of the show. The editors do as best they can to show us how one comment at a party creates a rippling impression that someone dislikes someone else, but so far, the Real Housewives franchises have had to work around the drama created when one woman says something to a tabloid about someone else, or leaks private information to a blogger, or makes a snide comment on twitter. It’s hard to depict every aspect of these women’s anger toward each other, but even harder when the things that make the most drama aren’t even on the table.
This is what has made season three of RHNYC so remarkably bizarre. The fame of being reality show stars has fully coalesced with the process of being on a reality show. Unlike The Hills, which chose to just ignore the fact that its subjects were now also celebrities, RHNYC often tries but fails to draw the same boundaries. Much of what fueled the Bethenny/Jill feud was probably Jill’s anger that Bethenny is getting her own reality show, but that goes unmentioned. At the same time, there was no way to show how angry Bethenny was at Jill without mentioning that Bethenny’s pregnancy was somehow leaked to the gossip blogs. So this whole season, in addition to being all the typical nuttiness and jealous, was also a mess of slowly disintegrating borders between reality and the reality show.
I’m not going to try to claim that what resulted was in any way classy (much though Countess DeLesseps may disagree) or dignified, but I’m also not going to claim that I didn’t watch it. And in admitting that I watched, I have to also admit I found it bizarre, upsetting, and entertaining.