The Real Housewives of Orange County, Bravo’s original offering in what seems its ever-growing collection of “rich women who bitch a lot” reality series, will be wrapping up its fourth season next week, making room for the New York Housewives to claim their portion of airtime before the Atlanta ladies move in to the Tuesday evening time slot. For fans of the “original” housewives, this is a time for mourning, and therefore it is also a time to reflect on the highlights of its girl-fightiest season ever.
This year, fans were introduced to two new housewives: Gretchen, who took the place of last year’s cougar-licious Quinn, and Lynne, who came on board when newly married Lauri moved her family to the less obnoxious and (in her words) drama-free community of San Juan Capistrano. I was sad to see Quinn go at first–what’s not to love about someone who sees her Christianity as central to who she is, even as she is donning a blond wig, extra makeup (with a fake mole near her lip to boot), and heading down to surprise her boyfriend in a Vegas cocktail lounge by introducing herself to him as “Candy”? But Gretchen is so hilarious to watch that by mid-season, I was like, “Quinn who?”
By contrast, Lynne, Lauri’s replacement, has been a bit of a downer, mostly because she always looks like she’s on downers: her mellow attitude and permanent squint make her look stoned out of her mind; were she not talking in most of the scenes, one could easily mistake her for catatonic.
What has been incredibly fascinating this season, though, is how much bitchiness these new additions sparked in the O.C.’s “old guard”: even “barely there” Lynne brought out Vicki’s worst fighting instincts on more than one occasion. But it is Gretchen, the thirty-year-old platinum blond, who was most often the recipient of some of the worst housewife behavior since the show first went on the air.
In the very first episode, viewers learn that Gretchen is engaged to Jeff, a man twenty-three years her senior who was diagnosed with leukemia a year into their relationship. Since then, Gretchen has, by all accounts, been Jeff’s full-time caregiver. This information is of little importance to the other wives, however, who choose instead to view Gretchen as a gold-digger for most of the season. “Hold on to your daddies, girls, here comes Gretchen!” Tamra cattily exclaims as the women all wait in a limo for the newest “girl” to join them for a day at the spa. (Never mind that Tamra is unemployed, and therefore relies on her wealthy husband to provide all the money that she then spends on clothes and plastic surgery, all in service of retaining her self-awarded title of “Hottest Housewife in Orange County.” And disregard as well that any discerning viewer could never believe Tamra married her husband for anything other than his money: his permanently expressionless face does nothing to convince people that Tamra went after him for his looks; add to that his seeming inability to laugh and the fact that he has all the personality of a bran flake, and it’s clear his personality wasn’t the appeal, either.)
But Tamra viciously goes after Gretchen anyway, particularly as the evidence seems to mount that Gretchen is actually a nice person who is just interested in having a good time and getting to connect with different people; the nicer Gretchen acts, the more Tamra seems bent on proving that she’s a skank. “I think Gretchen has a dark side to her,” Tamra remarks, in the same episode in which we see Gretchen being taught to hook up the feed tube that will provide her fiance’–who can no longer eat–with the sustenance he needs. “She says one thing, but does another,” Tamra insists, “and I’m a person who’s more interested in your actions than words.”
Thus, Tamra–committed to “judging people on their actions”–invites Gretchen and the other wives over for an “elegant” dinner party, ostensibly for the purpose of allowing Tamra to practice what she learned at an etiquette class she had taken. Each course was paired with a different kind of tequila chosen by Tamra’s lunkhead of a husband, and prepared–in a strange mix of reality TV overlap–by C.J., who competed in Top Chef Season Three.
Once the party is underway, however, viewers learn Tamra’s real motivation for the tequila-pairing focus of the meal: “We’re going to get Gretchen wasted,” she tells Vicki, who then remarks that Gretchen–already a few tequilas into the meal–“is wasted.” “No,” Tamra clarifies, “We’re gonna get her wasted. Naked wasted.”
What was that about “actions” again?
Whatever. The episode unfolds with scene after scene of Tamra encouraging Gretchen to drink, and Gretchen–stressed out from eight months of hospital visits and caring for Jeff–accepts every glass of tequila put in front of her by Ryan, Tamra’s horny, early-twenties son who is playing bartender for the evening. The whole affair is intensely creepy, with both mother and son having the same goal: to get Gretchen “naked wasted.” Their motivations may be different–Ryan clearly hopes to bed Gretchen once the nakedness has been achieved, while Tamra clings to the belief that plying Gretchen with tequila will help to bring out the “dark side” that Gretchen (in Tamra’s delusional mind) harbors underneath her bubbly personality–but their method is the same: pour as much alcohol into Gretchen as possible to see how she reacts.
Both end up disappointed; in the next episode, we learn that Gretchen didn’t so much as kiss Ryan, and never lashed out in anger at anyone, and thus Tamra decides finally to accept her as a friend, inviting Gretchen to a pool party where other women bring their kids and Gretchen brings her two chihuahuas, outfitted in little doggie life vests so that they, too, may partake of the swimming. Meanwhile, Ryan ratchets his lecherousness down a notch, and instead of rubbing on Gretchen shows her his latest tattoo, on the inside of his lip, which reads, “Nugget.” He doesn’t tell her the “story” behind the tattoo, which is that he got it to honor the miscarried baby of a girl he got pregnant a few years back. The tattoo is tragic, for sure, though not in the “how sad you lost a baby” kind of way, but in the “you tattooed the word ‘Nugget’ inside your lip” kind of way, and also in the “you referred to the baby you lost as ‘Nugget'” kind of way.
As selfish, ridiculous, and materialistic as these women often are, they somehow remain fascinating, perhaps because of their vacuousness. Wars rage, the economy collapses, and an intensely contentious presidential race form the global backdrop against which this recent season was filmed, but you would never know it. Anti-aging, dining, partying…these are the women’s chief concerns (outside of Gretchen, who has very real-world things to worry about); rather than living in a gated community in the literal sense, these women live in a gated community of the mind, residing full time in their immediate concerns with little understanding or interest in the outside world. That kind of sheltering takes some serious work–is it any wonder they would need to retreat a few times a week for a massage and some special pampering?
Go for it, ladies–you’ll need to keep up your strength when next year’s dramas roll around.