It was two minutes of flawless reality television.
Sunday night’s season two premiere of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City began with a wrecking ball to the fourth wall. A producer is seen setting up cameras in a van that will transport the cast to a girls’ trip, a wink to fans’ gleeful astonishment and gratitude: Oh my god, the cameras were actually there to film THAT!
“That” would be the authorities swarming production in order to arrest cast member Jen Shah, who was charged with fraud in connection with a telemarketing scheme that targeted elderly people. One’s giddiness over watching the chaos unfold on screen is directly related to how up to date they are on the headlines that have been circulating about Shah’s scandal. But given the intensity of Bravo fans’ all-encompassing consumption of all news, tweets, and Housewives-centric gossip, suffice it to say that the sequence amounts to Bravoholic euphoria.
You watch as the women start to arrive on the bus, engaging in the hallowed tradition of cooing “Hiiiiii” three octaves higher than a normal speaking voice, air kissing, and robotically complimenting each other’s outfits—business that occupies roughly 45 percent of every Real Housewives episode.
Shah arrives styled in ’90s Coolio chic, her hair in braids leaping from her head like a line graph tracking her net worth’s inevitable decline over the next few months. While everyone is settling in, she receives a phone call. You see panic flash in her eyes as she glances at the camera, as if staring at it hard enough would make it combust and what is about to be the worst day of her life wouldn’t be documented for posterity.
While the fear of God radiates off her so powerfully it’s a surprise a lightning bolt didn’t strike a steeple at the city’s Mormon temple, she is remarkably collected. She asks castmate Whitney Rose to turn off her microphone, tells everyone she received a phone call and must leave, and then speeds away in a gray pickup truck. Twelve minutes later, sirens are heard, the party bus is surrounded, and a chopper even circles overhead: “We’re looking for Jen Shah.”
The next minute or so is a tease. The women receive the news alert about the charges against Shah. They yell and loudly emote about it at dinner. We hear a producer ask two very pointed questions to the women as they shoot confessionals: “What do you know that you’re not saying right now?” And, “Do you know who tipped off the feds that day?”
There was no other option but to open this season of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City by satiating our ravenous appetite for footage about the Jen Shah scandal, specifically the arrest that we were all flabbergasted cameras were around for. It’s just an amuse bouche, of course.
The incident happened two months into shooting, which means there are several episodes of other drama to get through before really wading through the arrest aftermath. That so much of the premiere, while a quiet simmer in contrast to the opening sequence’s erupting volcano, was still so riveting speaks to the potential of the series after its breakout first season and amidst the reckoning in the time since it aired over what fans want or expect from the Real Housewives.
It’s a tightrope wire these women are navigating in their sky-high stilettos. These shows need to be a ludicrous distraction, and the lunacy must somehow be both heightened and grounded at the same time. It’s something that should be a logical impossibility but, when pulled off, becomes a reality-TV miracle. Audiences want to escape to a world of ostentatious wealth, narcissism, and bad behavior. But they also want there to be elements of schadenfreude and accountability, an acknowledgment that, while the cast may be living in gilded cages, those cages still exist in the world we live in and recognize.
The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City made a splash last year with a premiere episode that showcased how the cast’s morals and indulgences flew in the face of the Mormon religion they all had connections to—or at least our reductive understanding of it.
There were outrageous biographies to be stunned by, like how Mary Cosby inherited her grandmother’s church and fortune, but under the alleged stipulation that she marry her grandmother’s second husband after her death. (She and her former step-grandfather have now been married for over 20 years.) And there was the kind of bizarre and petty spats that are the franchise’s lifeblood, like when Cosby complained that Shah “smelled like hospital” after hugging her once. (Shah had been visiting her aunt, who was having both legs amputated.)
Heather Gay was a fountain of one-liners, but she was also open about her experience growing up in the Mormon church, being ostracized after her divorce, and the pain of trying to find her place and her values in a world without the institution that was the foundation of her entire life—but which she could no longer stomach supporting. These are women who spoke about how their identities were in constant flux and in judgement, whether because of their race, who they married, or their religion. And they happened to do it while getting tipsy and arguing. It was fun, but it also seemed like it meant something.
That meaningfulness was striking in Sunday night’s premiere. After the circus of the in media res Shah scene, the episode recenters two months prior with Shah at the new house she’s renting, The Shah Chalet 2.0.
Castmate Lisa Barlow comes over and Shah emotionally confesses that, during the pandemic, she and her husband nearly got divorced as a result of her angry outbursts. They’re in couples therapy now. Later, her mother and aunt—of “smells like hospital” fame!!!—stop by and Shah comes to terms with, after so much loss in her family, what it would mean to lose her husband, too. It’s all admirably candid.
Similarly, Meredith Marks is emotional about the loss of her father and her attempts at healing her marriage with her husband, Seth. Gay discusses what it would mean to her for her oldest daughter to go away to college and have the opportunity she never had to make mistakes and discover who she really is. Cosby explains the loneliness she suffered living apart from her husband for six months during the pandemic, and, on a new podcast she launched, is open about how lost she felt as a young woman until she found her purpose through God. Sure, all talk of Cosby’s church is tied to rumors that it is a cult and that her wealth is at the expense of the congregation. But it was still affecting honesty.
As far as inter-cast conflict goes, it’s impressive that the show managed to elevate the riff between Shah and Marks over Shah’s fairly homophobic social media comments about Marks’ son, Brooks, from exhausting nonsense to legitimately serious feud that looks to fuel much of the season’s drama. The episode chronicled the ritualistic Taking of the Sides between the women, blowing smoke into what will inevitably be the Jen Shah firestorm down the line.
RHOSLC seems to be more nimble than most other franchises at dancing between tones. Whereas recent seasons of the Atlanta and New York City iterations gave viewers whiplash between heavy, issue-focused scenes and outrageous comedy, the seriousness and the goofiness seem more authentically intertwined here. Gay can heroically order brunch for the table while making cracks about “skinny bitches...splittling a side salad,” conversation move to grieving Marks’ late father, and then the group strategize about confronting Shah and Barlow without any of it seeming abrupt or out of place.
(When it comes to the show’s comedy, new cast member Jennie Nguyen is instantly iconic, and her immigrant background is already one of the show’s more fascinating story arcs.)
But, of course, it all goes back to the Shah of it all, which is a precarious focal point.
Bravo fans will obviously turn to how The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has depicted Erika Girardi’s legal troubles as a benchmark. It’s been a riveting season, as Girardi self-victimizes and damage-controls, the castmates calculate in real-time how tough or empathetic to be towards her—or should we say miscalculate, when it comes to the majority of the group—and viewers grapple with the fact that a very grave crime with suffering victims is the source of such juicy television, and how uneasy to feel about it. Is the demand for accountability enough?
As with Girardi on RHOBH, the editors are making a meal out of all of Shah’s references to her wealth as she tours her new mansion and boasts about how the movers had never seen so many clothes, shoes, and handbags. When Barlow confides in her about her riff with some of the cast, Shah jokes, “Girl, you know I’d go to jail for you. I haven’t gone to jail yet.” You can almost hear producers orgasming when they realized they had this quote after Shah got arrested.
But that aforementioned demand for accountability is the thing, and that’s what seems so promising about this season. Sure, it’s just a trailer for what’s coming, but we see that, in future episodes, the cast will somewhat ruthlessly demand answers and explanations for Shah’s actions, immediately deferring to the trauma of the victims and appearing skeptical of her denials. (In other words, the total opposite behavior of the Beverly Hills cast, sans Sutton Stracke.)
But the key is to keep all that fun without seeming crass, a line that Beverly Hills seems to occasionally cross with the Girardi drama. Shah’s “Do I need to add Kim Kardashian to our legal team?” line in the trailer is brilliant, even if it raises questions of whether we should be delighting in her as an entertainer. The answer, I suppose, remains to be seen—and we couldn’t be more excited to tune in and find out.