TV review

Trump? Brand Awareness? What Made Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives of New York’ Stop Arguing?

The Daily Beast

September 1, 2017

Never has a Real Housewives reunion felt so equable—so full of giggling and bonhomie. There was even, shock, self-deprecation and apologies.

It made for very surreal viewing; some online even said boring. No matter where chief wife-puppeteer Andy Cohen poked his stirring-of-controversy stick, the Real Housewives of New York Season 9 reunion, which came in its traditional three parts, was full of smiles and cheer—and no one rising out of their seats to wave a manicured talon in another woman’s face.

Or, indeed, throw a prosthetic leg. The RHONY women have never been the same since that non-reunion moment.

But they have still argued and bitched; they knew, like any showperson, what the fans had come to expect. We saw the women go on their usual booze-drenched jolly, this time to Mexico, for Season 9. Although Tinsley Mortimer did indeed shout at Sonja Morgan for being controlling, and although Dorinda Medley freaked out at Bethenny Frankel and ended up stabbing herself, and although Luann de Lesseps ended up on her back in a bush, drunk as a skunk… despite it all, they smiled and simply enjoyed themselves.

Ramona Singer and Bethenny Frankel, always happy to be at daggers drawn, were smiling opposite one another during the reunion show like two benevolent aunts, even if expected apologies weren’t fulsome.

There seemed to have been a communal laying down of arms, a blithe acceptance of bygones being bygones, and this matched the mood of the season itself. Sure, there was backchat, and light cattiness, but the reunion was totally devoid of the usual screaming, tears, and walk-offs that have become such a familiar.

The truly confused person was Cohen himself. What had happened? His housewife-bots were malfunctioning.

The happy RHONY smiles seemed especially strange, as fans know that de Lesseps’ big storyline of this season—her marriage to Tom D’Agostino—was announced as over just as the series ended and after the reunion was filmed. Cohen will now host a one-on-one show with her next week to get the scoop on what happened.

His supposed cheating itself was a storyline of the show, and part of a series of klaxon warnings that the other women served up to de Lesseps.

But she dismissed them as interfering and meddlesome, and headed fatefully down the aisle.

If there were anything to row about it was this much-contested and much-debated marriage, but the women let de Lesseps speak, and merely rolled their eyes and smiled, as they had done on the show itself, when she professed her happiness. She couldn’t stop professing her happiness.

Her happiness became a humor trope itself.

What could this unusual outbreak of Housewives amity signal? It is clear that the New York contingent are much easier playing their parts in the show than Housewives in other jurisdictions. Whether this means that they get on any better, or whether it means they don’t want to damage their lucrative public brands and images, is a mystery.

Maybe they watch the shows back, and all the arguments seem stupid—and so at the reunion shows, all one can do is laugh and sheepishly atone to whoever you have insulted.

It was filmed in the first months of the Trump presidency, and while too soon to be a pop-cultural reaction to it, Season 9 of RHONY certainly echoed a prevailing desire for niceness, for hard edges planed smooth, as there are enough Trump-related rough edges on our news broadcasts to keep skin scored and reddened daily.

The smiles and warmth might also come down to exhaustion, theirs and ours. The Housewives mega-franchise is rooted in conflict, as most reality TV is. The Housewives’ conflicts are sustained by the battling and competitiveness of women, and that conflict has until now remained relentless and cyclical.

A friendship will break, bitching will occur, sides will be taken, a truce will be reached, friends become friends again, and then another feud will erupt and sides will be taken. And so on and so on, all the worst stereotypes of women’s friendships and enmities shamelessly exploited for entertainment.

All this comes accessorized with fabulous clothes, endless brunches and drinks parties, and super collective vacations. The title of the franchise is its biggest joke; these are far from “real housewives.” Fame has bought them wealth, celebrity, and staff of their own.

Rather like the classic plots of love in books, films, and on TV, there are a limited number of times the Housewives can be expected to do the same-old same-old.

Of late, the New York housewives have shown that they know how to fight and bitch, and they also know how to shrug it all off.

At least on camera, Carole Radziwill is not beside herself with anger that Ramona Singer, Sonja Morgan, and Luann de Lesseps voted for President Trump. Bethenny Frankel has been going through a pretty awful-sounding legal situation, involving her ex-husband stalking her. Sonja did treat Tinsley like a gaoler and Dickensian latchkey child.

But all of this was either glided over, or—in the case of Frankel who is the sharpest and quickest reality TV star of all time—turned into a self-knowledge accentuating anecdote.


They Know How to Argue, and How to Get Along

In contrast, a more traditional Housewives Mean Girls-vibe conflagration is underway in Orange County, where Tamra Judge and Shannon Beador are refusing to share significant screen time with Vicki Gunvalson.

Here, the true breakdown of a series of friendships manifests week-in-week-out with belabored references to the continued hurt on all sides, resulting from Vicki’s ex claiming, incorrectly it later transpired, to have cancer; and Vicki supporting him in that claim.

One of the mysteries of the Housewives is why “sorry” is never enough. (Well, “sorry” would mean no drama, and therefore no show.)

In RHOC, one of Bravo’s signature camera moves—it stays a beat too long on someone’s face to signify anger or confusion or dislike—comes with a slither of emotionally echoing music. If there is to be a warmer, friendlier Housewives for the Trump era, it has as yet bypassed the warring women of RHOC.

The New York Housewives haven’t gone totally glassy-eyed Stepford-happy. They still know how to argue, but they also seem to know they must continue, for the continued paychecks and fancy invites and town cars wherever they choose to go, to get along while not getting along.

They know that drinking and alcohol—which across all franchises is cartoonishly fetishized—is something to be conducted in extremis at all times.

Drinking makes them fight and misbehave as much as any producer could demand, and so it was that in Mexico a whole day of drinking tequila (Frankel’s brand, you can’t beat brand cross-pollination!) culminated in a motherlode of RHONY craziness.

The New York Housewives know both what works on TV, and also how to protect what they have built by being on TV. That’s a tough balancing act: to know you have become well-known for being a well-dressed banshee and chaos-instigator, while not becoming so obnoxious that the audience wishes you would evaporate, and won’t buy your wine or tequila.

That practically minded self-awareness would explain Ramona Singer’s atypical humility during the reunion shows, in which she looked horrified at her behavior toward Frankel.

But on one of the two couches on Wednesday night, she looked as happy and at peace as the rest of the women.

Time will tell if Season 10 continues with so many warm and happy smiles, or if producers will have a stern word with the cast to resume fighting. Or maybe both cast and Bravo have chanced upon a new, less crotchety iteration of this traditionally conflict-bathed franchise. If so, perhaps Season 10 should be retitled The Really Happy Housewives of New York.