Betrayal, Blowjobs, and Bitchery: the 'Real Housewives' Get Really Desperate

The Real Housewives of New York returned Tuesday night for its sixth season. The bitching and drinking flowed as expected, but amid talk of blowjobs for earrings and prosthetic limb jokes, is this franchise exhausted?

03.12.14 4:40 AM ET

The great unsung stars of reality television are not the overly primped, tanned, hysterical stars of shows squalling over men and dresses, and weddings and rumors about affairs, and pop singles they are only doing because they have made a dubious name for themselves marrying and squalling over men and spreading rumors of affairs. Who’s to criticize? Momma’s gotta make rent.

No, the people really excelling in every episode are the show’s musical ringmasters—what else to call them? These maestros compose and execute those little frisky tum-ti-tums on xylophones or guitars or drums to accompany each moment of confected drama. They are at their most skillful in the actual exchange of filthy looks between characters—I hate that this reveals me as a connoisseur, but I’m among friends right? The camera stays on a face a beat too long, there’s a dramatic twang, cut to another face for a beat too long, twang, and then all twanging hell breaks loose.

And so it was with the return of The Real Housewives of New York Tuesday night. Good grief, these ladies and their directors were working hard at conflict generation. They seemed tired rather than rejuvenated, goaded like tigers being poked by sticks from outside the bars to fight and scratch and growl at one another. Every time a camera turned off, you hoped they took off their vertiginous heels, rolled their eyes, and dashed off to the bank with their blood-money checks. For light entertainment this is grueling work.

The absurdity of the show, people have long said, is that there is nothing “real” about these housewives. They have pots of money, and spend time swanning to parties and launches. Well, we’re a little past that kvetch now. The real problem, if we accept the shallows Bravo makes us swim in, is that these women make New York look like such a bloody miserable, unglamorous place to live in. If you’re going to fabricate relationships and conflict among people you want us to feel are living the life, at least make it look fabulous. The first episode of this sixth season was a bit like the tear in Sonja’s carpet, which got its own twang: it was dog-eared, careworn, done in.

Before that, a warning klaxon was sounded by the women’s one-line self-introductions. These were all utterly mortifying. Even Carole Radziwill, the one who doesn’t get into fights and is a writer and able to somehow emerge looking halfway sane, had gone for the following: “If you’re going to talk about me behind my back, at least check out my great ass.” Is this meant to be camp? Sassy? It is neither; it is parlous. Aviva Drescher, who has a prosthetic leg, says: “When people tell me I’m fake, I know they’re just pulling my leg.” That I rewound a few times to take in the full horror.

The new “character,” Kristen Taekman, breezily says: “I may not be the sharpest tool … but I’m preeetty.” And then Sonja Morgan, cheez if ever there was a person who’s been told they’re “so camp” by their gay friends too many times, so that they then take camp and add eight cherries and six feather boas to every proclamation they make, comes out with: “Sometimes Sonja has to go commando—what can I say?” What indeed. What fantastic lessons for humanity and our young women, right from the off.

The episode began with Carole having her author photo taken, which merely provided an opportunity for Heather to show her PR nous, or lack of it, by bossing around the photographer, who tried—without success—to get her to shut up. In this scene what was evident was the deal with the conflict-devil the women are making. They will do all the fighting and drinking required of them in return for brand extension: Carole’s new book, Heather’s PR job, Ramona’s wine, Kristen’s modeling. The early scandal, but really it was a blip of gossip with half-hearted twangs, was that Sonja had a younger beau. So there were jokes about his big dick, and scripted lines like Heather’s: “Sonja has as many men as she has interns—and some of them are the same age.” Ta-dum.

Introducing Kristen involved some ruthless character delineation: she is clearly intended to fill the “parents of young children who aren’t ready to grow up bracket.” This she demonstrated, I felt disturbingly, by professing to be grossed out, volubly, seriously, by baby puke—and then in a sign she had received the memo to speak as trashily as possible at all times, she insisted there would be no more sex until her husband Josh had had a vasectomy. Later, and again I rewound this because it was so awful, he gave her some earrings, to which she responded thus: “Blow job for these, for sure.”

In a certain comedy with a certain actress, this would be fine. But not here. To his great credit, or a scriptwriter’s great credit, Josh’s response, “Should have got you two pairs,” at least made the gross winningly grosser.

What a miserable sequence of familiar echo chambers Kristen found herself trapped in: the Housewives parties where everyone desperately unleashes zingers which fail to land, and speak over one another, or walk away with the best bitchy put-down, but fail, because they don’t get out of the room quick enough and their intended target unleashes on them, until someone accuses the other of bullying and harassment. And there is a general crescendo of twangs.

It’s Sonja’s house that seems the strangest: she does have a lot of interns, who seem incapable—intellectually and physically—to realize that a ringing doorbell means you answer the door. Once inside the house, there was a tea party with dogs licking the choicest scones, and everyone sitting on chintz that should have been cast out in 1984 in a cramped, stifling-looking living room. Sonja and Ramona drink or act drunk, and squawk, but instead of seeming like Lucy and Ethel or Absolutely Fabulous’s Edina and Patsy—high-living, high rolling gals being gals, that’s the intention here—just seem like desperate lushes, particularly when Sonja has some kind of mystic in tow who advises Ramona to deal with her nemesis Aviva thus: “Don’t radiate to her personality, radiate to her soul.” Apologies, this particular lady is described as a “minister.” If only the interns had failed in the simplest task and not answered the door to her.

Aviva seems to have been cast as the bitch at this early stage, which she seems fine with. Believe what your post-hard-work-day brain will allow, but the enmity went from entrenched to fleeting in a blink of an eye. There is Aviva also posing with Ramona for photos on Twitter. In fact, see Ramona’s Twitter account, full of self-promotion for the new season. There is no shame to all this shouting and seething. Not if it shifts some white wine. Not if it promotes Aviva. Or Heather. Or the show. The key to Housewife’s success is to scream loudest. To create fire and lights. To scrap. Then run for that damn bank.

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It was strange to see Ramona deal with Aviva so calmly: usually her head swivels and her eye sockets pulse. This time she simply told her she was “vicious and mean-spirited.” By episode’s end, they were giving each other the second chances the genre demands, because without second chances how can there be more betrayals? And of course there will be: for over a minute at the end, was a circus of screaming and fighting to beckon the rest of the season.

Regular Bravo watchers—who? me?—will have seen this extended trailer in abbreviated form over the last few weeks. Ramona seems to fling a glass at Kristen from a boat which hits her in the face; the women take off for a City Slickers-type retreat with some cowboys; Heather cries desperately; Ramona, whose own marriage is allegedly imperiled off-camera, looks tense; “You are a psychopath,” Aviva is told. The last frame of all these trailers shows Aviva’s prosthetic leg lying on the floor, and someone looking shocked.

In this first episode of the new season of the New York Housewives, the exhaustion in this bear-pit of sequins and scuffed Laboutins is tangible, and telling. All this fighting, for what? It’s constant, terminal, sad, a gloopy reheat of betrayal and bitch-ery, a demented vision of sisterhood: we’re together, no we hate each other, no we love each other, let’s have a few cocktails, you betrayed me again, no I love you, don’t trust her … and so on. Are viewers ready to contemplate letting this franchise die? Is Bravo? Maybe, but don’t count it out until the twang of all twangs. You heard it tonight when you saw Aviva’s cast-aside prosthetic leg. There’s no twang beyond it. It’s the twang of no return, and Bravo still wants us to savor it.