07.13.11

The Perfect Reality Show

After a flurry of cast changes, naysayers said it was the end of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City. But those rumors were more than exaggerated—they were flat-out wrong.

In its fourth season, The Real Housewives of New York City has proved itself to be the best series in Bravo’s Housewives franchise, and a perfect example of how compelling unscripted TV can be. That’s remarkable especially because it has happened despite the loss of its breakout star, Bethenny Frankel, to her spinoff show on Bravo, and despite its unique combination of reality and artificiality.

Even a casual viewer would recognize that the cast members of The Real Housewives of New York City aren’t close friends. Unlike The Real Housewives of New Jersey, whose cast members are mostly family members, this show has been assembled for drama and conflict, and it’s obvious the cast is frequently interacting only because of the show, even if they previously knew of each other or were acquaintances with minimal history.

Yet, forced to interact for Bravo’s cameras, they take on the challenge, creating conflict and drama from nothing—and the result of that interaction inside artificial contexts is usually entertaining, frequently hilarious, and sometimes emotionally raw. And it’s always very real, even when the artificiality is obvious.

This is not The Truman Show (where the protagonist was unaware of the cameras and his stardom) or The Hills (where cast members’ off-camera lives were ignored, making the show increasingly less real), but somewhere in between, in a fascinating new space.

Christian Barcellos, the Bravo executive who oversees production on The Real Housewives series in New York, New Jersey, and Atlanta (as well as the canceled D.C. version and the presumably canceled Miami one), said that “because their lives are very public, that’s part of the story, who they are. They are people who live their lives in the public.” He acknowledged “certain constraints,” especially because “advance work needs to be done” to allow filming in spaces such as restaurants, but said that producers talk to and are guided by the cast members’ real lives.

Those women are, he said, “successful women who are highly motivated who have a level of ambition, who have a lust or thirst for life. They live large, they play large, and they do everything large.”

“They do, and they are great, TV-ready characters who aren’t afraid to look silly but often don’t realize how silly they look. From their hilarious misuse of the English language (“the epiphany of what I’m going through right now”) to their constant judgment of one another’s behavior (“it’s just not the right message”), the women seem remarkably unaware of their absurdity and pettiness, having a protracted argument about stealing hangers in their Moroccan lodgings.

Everyone contributes something different, which is part of why it’s so fascinating to watch. LuAnn de Lesseps constantly pulls rules for behavior out of thin air and then expresses outrage that someone is ignoring them, and it’s even better when that person is her. Ramona Singer walks into half of her scenes with her head cocked, ready to start an argument, hyperaware of the camera and the buttons she needs to push to get a reaction, but looking like a kid who desperately needs approval. New cast member Cindy Barshop was distraught earlier this season that she had to fire one of her nannies, as if having more than one is perfectly normal and having just one is the end of the world.

The Real Housewives of New York City’s ensemble has stepped up to fill the void, real or perceived. They’ve made sure we still know who they are and find them entertaining.

That’s why it’s so much fun: We can envy their wealth and the lifestyle it affords them, but we can judge them and easily feel superior. Because their problems are rarely consequential, and their fights are usually the result of miscommunication instead of anything real, The Real Housewives of New York City remains light and fluffy: Look at the ridiculous rich women arguing about nothing!

The women seem at once to have no self-awareness and to be hyperconscious of the way they will be portrayed. Season to season, there are clear shifts in friendships, alliances, personality, and behavior, perhaps because of the passage of time and their growth as people, and perhaps because they see themselves edited into characters on TV that highlight their best and worst moments and attributes.

Last season, in a rare moment when the series got too real, documenting a breakdown but treating it comically, Kelly Bensimon accused Bethenny of trying to kill her and Alex McCord of being a vampire. This season, Kelly has been mellow and, when she’s not shushing people, even makes sense, though not always. Meanwhile, Alex has gone from a wallflower to a reactionary fight-starter to the most reasonable and affable of the primary cast members—unless you think she’s the exact opposite, which perhaps most people do. Each cast member appeals to different people, and reasonable people can have different reactions.

The biggest change has come from Jill Zarin, whose on-screen conflict with Bethenny last season has resulted in a new Jill who not only looks different but feels hesitant to show up fully, lest she develop another friendship that implodes on-screen. Last season she fully engaged in and instigated fights; this season she’ll participate, but in a more mature way, as if she’s much more aware of the consequences, in terms of her relationships as well as how they look on TV.

The show sometimes breaks the fourth wall, from cast members discussing Sonja Morgan’s bankruptcy to an ongoing fight about “mean tweets” sent between cast members when cameras weren’t filming. Barcellos said, “There is definitely a connectivity with the cast that makes them real and accessible, and ergo, to go on that journey, it would be false to pretend that there was not this component of their life.” He said, “There’s always been this kind of general rule in television that people aren’t interested in watching a TV show about people doing a TV show, but with Housewives, we really follow the lead of our cast.”

The Real Housewives’ popularity also makes it constant fodder for the gossip press, and when Bravo moved the date of the fourth-season premiere, anonymous reports suggested it was because the show had become boring without Bethenny. Likewise, the show is constantly subjected to reports about producers’ plans to fire cast members or recruit new ones. “I’m always amazed how many stories end up creating themselves,” Barcellos said. “Obviously, it’s because people are projecting. They’re projecting their own opinions, their own concerns.” But Bravo’s “internal concerns were far less. You change the ensemble, you’re always curious how the new incarnation is going to change.”

The change hasn’t harmed the series; if anything, it’s made it better, as The Real Housewives of New York City’s ensemble has stepped up to fill the void, real or perceived. They’ve made sure we still know who they are and find them entertaining.

Barcellos said that, as the show’s producer, “one thing I love about New York is they are incredibly verbal, they are fast on their feet, and they have a lust for life—they love to do things.” He said that “as a creative executive, it’s just a wealth of material to work with. To me, in some ways, it’s the best of all worlds: You get heightened drama, but you also get incredible comedy out of this group of women.”