Brace yourself! I am going to write a thinky post about the Real Housewives series!!!! Yes, the ultimate bad joke of bad TV in America. And also, a pop culture artifact about which I am sure SO MANY other thinky posts have already been written and I am saying nothing new. But maybe it will be new to you! And it is new to me, which is important.
So, my friend who I now own the house with got her booster shot like 9 months ago. And she asked her friends for suggestions on what to watch while sick for 24 hours, and one of her friends said “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. No, REALLY”. So she watched it in a fever and misery haze and went “whoa, this is unexpectedly addictive!!!” Once she got passed the vaccine point, we started co-working off and on sitting on her couch. And she was very excited to introduce me to this dumb brain chum to have on in the background while we answered work emails and so on.
And that is the story of how I finally ended up watching the Real Housewives genre of TV more than a decade late to the party. And it’s FASCINATING!
The thing is, the common complaint I had seen all over the place before watching the shows myself, these are NOT good people. These are NOT people who anyone should care about, respect, or pay attention to. And what I am discovering while watching is that the first two statements may be mostly true (do not respect or pay attention to them), but the last statement is not. We SHOULD pay attention to them, for lots of reasons.
Going back for a second to those first complaints, these shows are brilliantly constructed to make sure you do not, in fact, respect or care about the leads. While we watch them go about their lives, we see reactions of the people around them. Their staff, the workers at their parties, even the clerks at luxury stores. THOSE are the people we relate to, the “us” onscreen. In the later shows (like Salt Lake City), they go much further and make the crew of the show itself into an observational character. In the Talking Head segments, instead of just the women saying what they think, they are challenged by producers interviewing them. We even see cameramen surrounding them, professional make up crews and stylists, etc. etc. etc. We know that they are only so “fabulous” thanks to an enormous staff around them, and that most of those staff HATE them.
These shows are also a triumph of aware editing. First, they have to be edited together to create a semi-logical narrative for each episode (the fight that comes up at the tea party and refers back to the meeting at the shoe store needs to be in the same episode as the meeting at the shoe store, and you have to put all that together with the talking heads explaining what each of them were feeling). But then, they are edited into a further meta-narrative. The tired and eye rolling reaction shots of the staff are inserted at just the right moment to land the hardest, the flashback that directly contradicts what is now being said is inserted for maximum impact, and random moments of the leads tripping, breaking kitchen equipment, and generally being useless are inserted between scenes. The audience is not watching this and feeling closer and more sympathetic towards the people onscreen, they are watching it and feeling closer and more sympathetic towards the people who “wrote” the episode. We are all watching them together.
Each season of each show ends with a massive multi-part “reunion episode”. In which that unseen observer is personified by Andy Cohen, who uses questions submitted by viewers to guide the women towards discussing whatever we most want to see them talk about. The reunion show is allllllllllllll about Andy Cohen. He is us, we are him, and in a strange way, he is the unseen protagonist that has been there all along, the observer through whose eyes we are seeing these craaaaaaaaaaaaazy people.
Salt Lake City is the newest addition to the genre and it takes the series to it’s logical conclusion. Salt Lake city is really straight forward. There are two “normal” women, we like them, they say true things, and their lives make some sort of sense. And there are two women (at least) who are truly evil. And these are good things for us to talk about, for us to see, for us to recognize.
Most people are not like the insane over the top extroverted Real Housewives. But honestly, some people are. And it’s a useful life skill to learn to recognize them. I had a friend/co-worker for a while who was charming and fun and always had crazy things going on in her life, and also crazy feuds and dislikes and so on. And I put up with her for WAY longer than I should have, because I am a nice normal person and I kept trying to find a reason for all her wackiness. We don’t talk enough about the life skill of recognizing toxic people. They are everywhere, they are often charming and delightful to be with and very very rich. And then eventually you get burned and have to walk away.
In the earlier Real Housewives, there just weren’t enough villains. The point of these shows shouldn’t be to watch rich people be rich. It should be to watch bad people be bad and to fully understand how society works in order to enable that. In Salt Lake City, one woman has been arrested for using a telemarketing scam to rip off the elderly. And another woman is fighting strong rumors that she has become rich by running a mega-church and forcing her parishioners to give her all their money. Both these women, long before those stories emerged, had already become “villains” on the show. Because they were Bad Friends.
There’s a correlation between people who are Bad Friends and also just plain Bad People. The lack of empathy, the ability to manipulate and constantly achieve forgiveness, it’s all skills that expand to the greater fabric of society, that break what is around us, that make it worse and not better. Let’s talk about that! About how when someone is a bad friend, and lies to you, and breaks promises, you should be suspicious of them in EVERY part of life.
The other thing that Salt Lake City grasps as the most recent version, is that you truly need a larger social message, a larger sense of setting, a larger SOMETHING that can create the undercurrent for the show. And in this show, it is religion. Two of the leads are lapsed Mormons who are still dealing with their scars and guilt, one of them is a cult leader (maybe), another is an adult convert to Islam, another is a converted Mormon. And the fact that I know that gets at what I meant by the title of this post, these are things we should be talking about!
Where else on television do you have a place to see people discuss religion not in an intellectual way, or a formal debate, but just day by day life? Where else do you see someone talk about infertility struggles, about falling out of love with your spouse, about addiction and the effect on the family? And, most of all, about the complex ebbs and flows of female friendships?
The choice to present these topics through the lens of rich mostly horrible women is important. Something I find myself saying over and over again while watching is “I hate _____, but even she didn’t deserve to go through _____”. These things are so TERRIBLE that people I have seen be terrible to each other and others, who I just straight up don’t like, should still not go through them. For instance, the woman who uses predatory practices in her church, is also in a marriage where she really REALLY doesn’t like her husband but can’t leave him because her congregation wouldn’t accept it. This is a bad person, a bad friend, and I just plain don’t like her. But even she doesn’t deserve to be trapped in a marriage with a person she doesn’t like or find attractive in any way.
Does that make sense? First, that these shows are encouraging us to observe rich people through a critical lens. And second, that they are reflecting “reality” in that they are showing us the same kind of toxic people who might be in your church, the weird abusive relationship you may see between your neighbors, and the addiction struggles you may now from your own family. And finally, that they are giving us a place to talk about issues in a new way, and come to understand that it does not matter how we feel about someone personally, some stuff is just WRONG.