Mr. Andy Cohen
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112
I bet you have no idea how critical I have grown of you and Bravo. I can’t really blame you. I imagine you have bigger fish to fry than to consider what a minor blogger thinks about your Housewives shows, the cornerstones of your network.
Still I can’t help but wonder how shortsighted it was to let them slip so far into a cesspool of dramatic screaming matches and character-assassinating name calling. Please pardon me if I am misremembering the past. I know sometimes people look back on history and see it all through rose-colored glasses. Still I don’t think this is the case, in my recollection of what made the Real Housewives franchise so interesting, back in its infancy.
It seems to me all of these shows used to be more like real life where things that seem relatively minor to someone who is not involved, are actually quietly game-changing to those who really understand what is going on, and know who all the players are. For me at least, it made watching the Housewives fun. It made me want to invest my time, over the long haul, in trying to figure everything out.
↪ Case in point, and I am pretty sure this was a finale episode eons ago, what looked like a regular suburban barbecue in Vicki Gunvalson‘s backyard was not just a group of people, arriving with their dates to enjoy a burger and a Labor Day afternoon with the neighbors. On the contrary, it was the scene of water cooler discussion-worthy diss: that cad Slade Smiley had brought a hot date to a cast event, mere days after breaking up with Jo de la Rosa, his live-in girlfriend and Real Housewives of Orange County cast member. Gosh that was a long time ago.
It wasn’t “explosive drama;” it didn’t need to be. No one needed to be accused of having a shady past. No one was embarrassed within an inch of her dignity. Tables were not flipped; drinks were not tossed. No one appeared to have a psychiatric break. On the contrary it was far more subtle, and as a result, far more interesting than a verbally and physically violent episode of the Jerry Springer show.
Instead of that kind of slapstick entertainment, we viewers just quietly watched as our imaginary friend, Jo, kept her cool and her temper in place, while looking relatably uncomfortable that her snake of a former fiance introduced a very pretty woman in hot pants to Jo’s workplace soirée. It gave us a chance to imagine ourselves in a similar situation and to wonder how we would have reacted. And it was a building block scene that helped to under exactly who Slade really is, not to mention all the wild theories people had about where Slade’s date came from.
I suppose that wasn’t enough for your network. I am guessing that at some point, you decided you needed to amp up the drama to preposterous heights or depths, depending upon your perspective. Instead of the scenes that were quietly shattering like James Joyce’s The Dead, you opted to go the way of Jerry Springer and pursue plot lines that were explosive, but just as absurd as when Jerry invited onto his show a man who wanted to marry a farm animal – much to the volatile disgust of his human wife.
I am guessing that once the New Jersey Housewives entered the scene, subtle, relatable drama couldn’t satisfy your and Bravo’s thirst for ratings. I am guessing that once Caroline Manzo and Teresa Giudice came to the screen and began to bully Danielle Staub with their name calling that she was “garbage” and a “prostitution whore,” you gave up on The Affluencers, the affluent, influential viewers that impressed the New York Times.
The timeline certainly supports this theory. Back in October 2008, the Times marveled at how Bravo’s cleverly took the low-brow Reality TV genre and elevated it by casting and filming people “with just as much zeal, to show their good taste and talent in high-status fields like food, fashion and design.” The writer, Susan Dominus, gushed at how you were able to “take this form of mass entertainment and make it boutique and chic, aiming for a small but young and affluent audience, the kind that advertisers covet.”
A FAREWELL TO NUANCE
As we all know, all of those lofty ambitions flew right out of the window by the time the Real Housewives of New Jersey debuted in May 2009. Instead of “good taste,” we were exposed to a group of thuggish women who spoke in a language dominated by aggressive challenges and ominous proclamations about how “if you think I’m a bitch, bring it on,” and “let me tell you something about my family, we’re as thick as thieves.”
From that point forward, gone were the days of water cooler conversations about whether youth-obsessed Lynne Curtain was too stoned to properly parent her party-animal daughters, or whether Shereé Whitfield should have done more when NeNe Leakes wasn’t on the guest list for Shereé’s big birthday party. Instead – apparently inspired by New Jersey’s impressive season one ratings, that averaged 2.5 million viewers per episode – the fur began to fly in all of the Housewives habitats.
↪ Suddenly in Atlanta, during seasons two and three, things began to get physically violent. Not only did Shereé chase Kim Zolciak out of a restaurant and “tug” on her wig, while Lindsay Lohan’s father looked on. Before we knew it NeNe choked Kim on a tour bus somewhere in Florida. And it wasn’t just the Georgia Peaches who seemed inspired to amp it up New Jersey-style and deliver the “explosive drama” Bravo loves to promote.
↪ Suddenly in New York, the story lines did not center on innocent things like the grudge match on the tennis court between Jill Zarin and Alex McCord‘s husband. After New Jersey’s first season aired to wildly impressive ratings, it seems like it was game on over there in 30 Rock. Never again would the ladies of Manhattan be able to get away with a mere rivalry between Bethenny Frankel and Kelly Killoren Bensimon that threatened the success of Jill’s hilariously titled, “Creaky Joints” fundraiser. From that point forward, they’d have to let it all hang out with explosive “Sun, Sand and Psychosis” on “Scary Island.” Instead of being seen as a diplomat, Ramona Singer would be characterized as “ambushing” Jill Zarin when she tried to get her to make nice with Bethenny. Soon enough Kelly would be crying foul about “systematic bullying.”
↪ Suddenly in Orange County, the drama stopped being about whether or not Jeana Keough‘s children will break into professional baseball and whether or not Lauri Waring will be able to launch her struggling kids into adulthood, as she enjoyed being swept away by her Prince Charming. Seemingly out of nowhere Vicki Gunvalson started sparring with Tamra Barney‘s husband, practically insisting that they get a divorce, which they eventually did. Gretchen Rossi let it rip by meddling in how Lynne parented her daughters, reducing the handbag designer to tears. And before you knew it Tamra caught the over-the-top drama bug herself and rose to Housewives infamy by tossing a drink in Jeana’s face – for no reason that I can possibly comprehend. But it sure did bring in the ratings. With 2.8 million viewers, it was the most watched show of season 6.
I can no longer relate to the women on these shows, which is odd because they are in my age group and I have lived in, or have spent lots of time in, all of the Housewives locations. Something about their lives should be kinda familiar to me. But it’s not anymore.
I just cannot imagine going on vacation with colleagues and waking up to discover that my hostess has told at least a million people that I had anal sex with a stranger. Yes it is mildly amusing that the stranger bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain Morgan, the rum mascot, but for me at least, that’s not enough to make the Housewives of New York “appointment television.”
I just cannot imagine getting accused by family and friends of “setting up” an elaborate plot to reveal that my sister-in-law was once a dancer in a bikini bar. I just don’t get what is so fun about embarrassing others, or what is to be gained by watching someone get humiliated on national television. Everything about the Real Housewives of New Jersey is too much and too little at the very same time.
There are too many Kims: D and G and both are dreadful. There are too many Joe Gs: Juicy and Tarzan’s slave. Neither is remotely interesting. There are too many meaningless boutiques with nearly identical names: Posche and Posh. Teresa is the muse of one; Melissa promotes the other. Despite that key “c” in the name of one, both women always look and behave like birds of a feather.
I need more than this. To quote my friend, an adult autistic who is incredibly bright and occasionally vulgar, the Franklin Lakes show has defied the laws of physics: it both sucks and blows at the very same time.
Believe me, Andy, I get why all of this is happening. I get that you want ratings and that you and your bosses, Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick, got it into your little noodles that the audience loves all of the “explosive drama” you and your production companies have helped to orchestrate. I suspect you believe that is true because the network’s viewership spikes whenever you tease that someone will be the recipient of a verbal beat-down during an upcoming episode.
SHORT TERM GAINS VS. LONG TERM PAYOFFS
But getting back to that Affluencer article the Times ran, I am not so sure this new strategy to amp up the drama with hopes of amping up the ratings is going to work in the long run with the “small but young and affluent audience, the kind that advertisers covet.” I say that, Andy, because if everything you show us is ugly, you’ll never be able to continue delivering “voyeurism for the voyeur with a good eye,” that once perked up the interest of media buyers at big advertising agencies.
Andy, if you look closely at what the Times said, I think you’ll have to admit that you’ve been myopic. You’ve deviated too far from the days when “Bravo’s shows (had) a knack for flattering the viewers’ sense of their own good taste, whether the viewers are judging fashion designs on the runway or scrutinizing the women on the “Housewives” series for fashion faux pas.”
That’s not at all what is happening over there in 30 Rock today. It is no longer the case that to “watch Bravo is to feel like an insider — to be taken inside a gated community or the back office of the exclusive gym… To watch Bravo is also to be let in on the joke.”
On the contrary, today the joke is on us, thanks to cast members like Melissa Gorga and Jacqueline Laurita who misrepresent their show’s timeline, and Aviva Drescher who walked onto her first set, knowing she was expected to behaved like one of the “gladiators with boobs,” whose job it is to to “bring the drama.”
I just don’t think any of this is going to be appealing, in the long run, to your key viewership, the people with the cash and the taste to purchase the things your advertisers want to sell us. And the problem is you’re pushing us away with the people and the contrived situations that no longer ring believable or interesting on any level.
I wanted to write you this note to warn you that the secret to your old, pre-New Jersey formula was, as the New York Times pointed out, to air shows that “feature egocentrics who are self-aware enough to realize that they are egocentric, and who have the redeeming feature of generally being very good at what they do. They may be occasionally appalling, but they’re usually presented in such a way that some small part of each Bravo viewer — likely competitive and driven herself — can relate, at least a little.”
I’m sorry Andy. I just cannot relate to any of the Housewives shows anymore. Here’s to hoping you and your colleagues will right the ship soon. Otherwise I’m out, my friend.
Image Sources: woman writing (backseatmummy.com), Jerry Springer brawl (humortimes.com), Teresa Giudice (BravoTV.com, aliens (screenmoguls.com, eye chart (wikipedia.org)
About the Author (Author Profile)
I am a New York City publicist who specializes in promoting luxury products and experiences and occasionally moonlight as a journalist.
Relatively new to the world of blogging, I have watched and enjoyed Bravo’s Housewives shows since the first season of the Real Housewives of Orange County. I created this blog over the 4th of July holiday of 2011 because I enjoy writing and love to figure out how to blend images and words to create something that is both visually compelling and interesting to read.