Everyone kept their legs on.
For The Real Housewives of New York City, now—quite astonishingly—in its seventh season on Bravo, that’s a good thing. It means that all Prada-wearing socialites could swill cocktails freely and needn’t worry about ducking flying appendages. It also means a retreat from transparently contrived drama and a return to the franchise’s more organically batshit crazy, real-ish roots.
The catalyst for that return, of course, is the homecoming of original cast member and, arguably, the biggest celebrity this franchise has ever turned out: Bethenny Frankel. The bitch is back.
Praise Andy Cohen, for five years after leaving Housewives behind, Frankel has risen. The reality-TV messiah has returned to hobnob with her ladies-who-lunch apostles, to lord over more booze-and-rage-fueled Last Suppers. And having weathered in her absence from Housewives a hit spinoff show, a marriage, the birth of her child, a divorce, and a failed talk show, the second coming of Bethenny brings with it drama of biblical proportions.
The kind that doesn’t require the chucking of limbs to make compelling.
It’s the fascinating thing about Tuesday night’s RHONY premiere. Not much happened, at least in the way of flipping tables and ripping weaves and throwing drinks at Lisa Rinna—things that late joiners to the Housewives franchise, voracious students of the original seasons hungry for screen time, have confused for good reality TV.
Instead, centering on Frankel’s emotional rebirth from some dark personal and professional trauma, the episode tackled love, loss, diets of vodka, cucumber, and butter—and just trying to find a goddamned house to live in. All is washed down with the Bravo signature cocktail of trash masquerading as class, and outlandish caricatures of people maniacally finding a way to somehow touch on the most relatable shreds of humanity.
There’s Bethenny, the “wealthiest homeless person in Manhattan,” whose season-long narrative has been set for a while now. “Failed talk show, failed marriage,” she tearfully confesses to Million Dollar Listing’s Fredrik, nonsensically appearing in a genius bit of Bravo brand synergy. “It’s like starting over.”
She addresses the dead elephant in the room immediately: the disastrous eponymous talk show that was canceled after less than a year on air. “I did not really enjoy doing it,” she says. “I felt like I was a crossing guard…‘First, the pumpkin soufflé. In two seconds, Jeremy is going to come out to his mother!’”
Love her or hate her or love to hate her—and the brilliance of Bethenny is that the population is split evenly among the three—she has a knack for pithy, tart-tongued sound bites, delivered so frantically and often that you forget what a special talent she has for, silly as it sounds, being on TV.
What else is going on with Bethenny? She’s not cynical about love, even though her divorce has been the pits. She wants another baby, but she’s single and only getting older. “Everybody’s not Halle Berry doing it at 46,” she says. “I don’t even have an apartment.” The big takeaway from Bethenny’s first episode back is that someone needs to get this woman a place to live, which is honestly about as engaging of a plot line as there comes.
I love House Hunters. I love Bethenny Frankel. Those things together? Magnificent.
Bethenny dominated the premiere, with probably three times the screen time as any of the other women—which is to say that the other women got just the right amount of screen time. These ladies are fabulous television in doses. In bulk, they can be a nauseating blend of histrionics, emotional instability, and extreme self-involvement.
Sonja is at peak ridiculous. Carole is purring and slithering her way through Tinder and book deadline meetings like a petulant Kathleen Turner. Luann is doing her Luann-y regal flitting about, while Dorinda continues to be Manhattan’s most fabulous frump. And Ramona? Ramona just wants someone to let her cry, for god’s sake.
These women are wonderful. There’s the misconception in other Houseswife franchises, and it’s bled into New York in recent seasons, that there has to be a villain for the show to work. Worse, multiple women would essentially compete for that status, the end result being a coven of hateful characters, and not actual people you’d enjoy watching on TV. Luann, Bethenny, Sonja, Ramona—Ramona!—these are women you want to watch, whether they’re acting insane or revealing genuine emotion.
Throughout the premiere, poor Ramona is searching for someone to commiserate with about her divorce from Mario. Her lunch with Sonja was a bust, with Sonja—as she’s lovably wont to do—repeatedly flipping the conversation to be about her, escalating the meal into some odd “who’s heart has been broken worse?” contest. Guys, I think Ramona and Sonja’s friendship might be on the rocks. That’s drama that we actually want to see!
Ramona instead finds solace with her old friend Dorinda, and Dorinda’s teas. Dorinda has all kinds of teas. Every kind of tea you can imagine. But she provides Ramona with more than just a varied selection of herbal hot drinks. She gives Ramona what Ramona needs to have given to her: Someone to nod in her direction while she weeps.
Dorinda has another really dumb scene faux-fighting with her daughter about handbags, but it’s all a lead-up to the most fascinating segment of the episode. You see, Dorinda is not just a tea enthusiast. She also is a maven of dry cleaning. She dry-cleans it all. Mitten? Underwear? You name it, she dry-cleans it. How great for her, then, that her new boyfriend runs a fancy dry cleaners. The whole thing is so weird, and Dorinda has never been more lovable.
But then we get to Sonja, who very clearly does not have time for luxuries like casually passing afternoons at an upscale dry cleaners. Oh no, Sonja is running homes and building businesses and taking care of her kid and training interns. Interns! She’s the Intern Queen, self-proclaimed! The lawsuit over a movie that was never made was settled, and the house in France has been sold. These are facts that are presented without a hint of humor. And then she receives a gold facial on her terrace while her interns sit and stare at her.
God bless Sonja.
In an interview with The Daily Beast ahead of Tuesday night’s premiere, Bethenny talked about her decision to return to the franchise. In quotes that didn’t make it to print, she said that while she was in talks with Bravo to come back, she found out that the other Housewives were actually clamoring for her to return.
“I knew Luann did,” she said. “She didn’t know I was talking to Andy and said to me, ‘Will you ever come back?’ Sonya said, ‘Oh my god, would you ever come back?’ Ramona said, ‘I want you. Come back.’ Some of these women I didn’t have the greatest relationship with, so I respected that. They thought it would be good for the show. I thought, oh wow, I respect that they’re businesswomen and they want it for the good of the show.”
These women are smart. They know that RHONY has kind of sucked recently, to the point that someone throwing her leg in a glaringly planned and manufactured moment was its biggest source of buzz. They know what Bethenny brings to the table. They know the essential chemistry, equal parts toxic and magic, that they have with each other.
And as their series heads into its seventh season and strives to regain some of the ratings dominance it once had, it’s that chemistry that’s going to give it its, ahem, leg up.