Daniel Granville explains why
Much has been written on why people watch television. Of course, we often watch TV to see the uncanny, to see the family with nineteen kids and counting, to find out whether Kim’s had any surgery on her derriere or whether it’s natural. In short, we often watch TV to escape our reality and play imaginative dress up in someone else’s.
Watching Andy Cohen’s/Bravo TV’s Real Housewives franchises is exactly one of those times.
Imagine a show where the audience could remember and discuss in detail nuances of the characters’ plots/story arcs/lives each new episode. A show where viewers would fiercely debate whether they were more like Kim or Nene or Yolanda or Kyle, and who that they knew was like Taylor, or Sheree. A show that required no effort in building set pieces, a show that needed (initially) no writers and nothing in the way of plot but the most mundane and everyday activities; going shopping, going to lunch, talking about people who weren’t your friends, and being talked about by people who supposedly were. This is the level of engagement all reality shows seek, and Cohen’s Real Housewives have it in spades.
Where else on network TV could we watch an ongoing saga of addiction and despair in Kim’s (RHOBH) alcoholism, and read about it in the Enquirer as it happened in real time? And what of Taylor (also RHOBH), who struggled with the loss of her husband after he took his own life, exposing one of the rawest human moments to the Bravo cameras and keen viewers, hungry for the next salacious instalment in these women’s lives? Who can say what will happen to Phaedra Parks of RHOA, whose husband Apollo is currently serving eight years in Federal Prison for fraud? The choices these women make, to expose the painful realities behind the collagen and the fast cars and the big houses they live in are uncanny, almost unbelievable, except that it’s true; it is all real. It’s difficult not to want to express one’s own opinion as marriages, babies, divorces, miscarriages, prison, new noses, new addresses, new addictions, old flames, old addictions, old hurts, new grudges, pain, shade, and all the ugliness and beauty of living are meted out on Bravo’s channels. Weekly, these characters we love to gossip about, and tear down for chasing fame allow us into the hearth of their lives.
It is tempting to blame the culture of overexposure on the Kardashians and their Faustian bargain with global media, or to look even further back and indict MTV and the networks of old with their proto-reality fare – TRL, The Real World, Bad Girls’ Club, Flavour of Love (a classic) etc. It is possible to stretch the finger of blame even further back, in an attempt to understand how we got here. But we are here. The world is the world is the world and the world is flooded with information from everyone and everywhere about everything all the time. The phenomenon of the Real Housewives is not a symptom of some social deficiency, but a fact of life.
I argue that in our enthusiastic taking up of the show, we are looking not just for escape, but within the world of the messy one-percenters and Real Housewives, traces of ourselves. There is a fine line between the Other and Us, and while watching the Bravo franchises invites us into a world so egregiously removed from our reality as to seem like Wonderland to the banalities of our lives, we also want to find the women and the humanity, the essential sameness we share with the people behind the contoured exteriors of the Queens of Reality TV. Of course, this brings us to questions about whether or not, by watching, we’re all simply enabling the exploitation of these women; they are primped and pulled and edited and their personhood squashed into a persona we can identify with – or despise – so that for 45 minutes to an hour we can see them playing Punch and Judy with one another and the pain and joy of each other’s lives. Is there a post-Reality TV utopia that we are moving to, once the overexposure is too much? Perhaps, but for now we are simply enthralled; spectators in the presence of King Andy Cohen and the endless precession of his brides: the Real Housewives, who are more real and more like us than we’d like to think.