While conflict has always been a part of reality TV and certainly part of the attraction, there’s a tipping point for me when it becomes uncomfortable. What finally made me stop watching The Real World were the pointless, alcohol-fueled, violent fights between its cast members. I have no doubt that The Real Housewives has filled part of the void that the MTV series used to fill in my reality TV watching, but it has always been more absurd and stupid than serious and consequential.
Part of the fun of the series is that these rich women and men are so ridiculous: petty, stupid, childish, immature, and often hilarious as a result of all of the above. The Real Housewives of New York City are the best example, I think, because all of the elements just fire simultaneously. Just watch an episode that highlights Ramona’s sad insecurity and constant attempts to get other people to validate her, which often involves her demanding attention and repeating herself, and you’ll see what I mean–and either be instantly addicted or completely turned off.
Every season, and even during the season, alliances shift, and part of the fun is watching former friends fight and former enemies bond over their former friends. And then everyone makes up, Alex says something nerdy, Ramona’s eyes appear, and it’s a wrap. Though the set-ups are contrived (“I decided to ask so-and-so out to lunch because the producers told me we needed a scene together”) and the storylines sometimes seem selected in advance because it’d be too difficult to just film 24/7 and see what happens, that ends up keeping the drama light enough so that it’s entertaining but not really all that consequential.
This season, however, has been a lot grittier: Bethenny Frankel has been dealing with the death of her estranged father and conflict with her former friend Jill Zarin, conflicts which are evident in real life, too. That has improved the season, as it stepped up its game in the wake of the intense and personal family drama that The Real Housewives of New Jersey brought last season but seem unwilling to provide this season. While the previews suggest some major drama is coming, the New Jersey season is barely watchable just because it’s so dry. Perhaps that’s a function of the fact that this season is twice as long; last season was half over at this point, and we were halfway to the famous table-flip.
But as it approaches the end of its third season, the New York City version is on fire–so much so that it pushed up against the line of uncomfortability on Thursday’s episode, when Kelly Killoren Bensimon basically had an extended, two-episode meltdown while the women were vacationing in Virgin Islands (although without LuAnn or Jill, who shows up as a surprise next week and apparently pushes the drama pedal to the floor).
After days of goading Bethenny by insisting, among other things, that’s she’s not a chef, Kelly threw herself onto her bed in tears after Bethenny gave her a bag of Bethenny product placement, and then Kelly called Jill on the phone and said “I’ve had nightmares for the past week about [Bethenny] stabbing me.” It was the first of many non-sequitors, and the crazy shit hit the fan at dinner, when Kelly flipped out and started making bizarre and nonsensical claims and accusations, including about Alex being possessed and Bethenny trying to kill her. Just watch this extended scene for some examples of this extended weirdness.
Just as the show almost went off the rails, it became more real than perhaps ever before when the women realized this wasn’t just for TV, and “something’s wrong with her,” as Bethenny said. They stopped confronting Kelly about her bizarre behavior and tried to calm her down. Who knows what’s really going on with Kelly, but the whole scene–and season, really–has been thoroughly entertaining yet moving slowly toward that line that The Real World once crossed, when it stopped trying to help its (sometimes damaged) cast members and instead let them go crazy while cameras rolled. It’s about time they lightened up, though not so much that to be as boring as the New Jersey version.
The Real Housewives of New Jersey: C+