Our Housewives, Ourselves: How Bravo puts the ‘reality’ in ‘reality TV’

Remember when Bravo was a true arts channel, airing off the radar independent films and providing viewers with hours upon hours of James Lipton interviews in which serious actors talked about their craft?  If your answer is, “No,” that is likely because the Bravo of today bears little resemblance to its high-brow ancestor, having clipped its artsy roots to grow instead into the CNN of reality programming–a place on the dial where a few central stories replay themselves endlessly in order to justify the network’s role as a twenty-four hour cable channel. With CNN, of course, the stories are “news;” with Bravo, the stories are those of its reality TV “stars,” not the least of which are the women who populate the abbreviated seasons of the many incarnations of  The Real Housewives.

It started with the buxom, botoxed, brash ladies of the OC, whose high ratings spawned a spin-off: The Real Housewives of New York City. It might seem that, having both coasts covered, Bravo could comfortably leave it at that and concentrate on any number of its competition-based programs, but this is America, which means that if you’ve made something popular, then you saturate the market with as many versions of it as you can conceive. Hence, Bravo followed the New York series with last summer’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and just weeks ago unveiled The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Wait a minute; wait a minute–New Jersey?? I mean, NYC, I understand; Atlanta, fine. But New Jersey? What’s next–Real Housewives, Reno? The Real Housewives of Needles, CA?

The franchise has obviously grown ridiculously out of control. And so you can imagine why it is with some degree of embarrassment that I admit that not only have I tuned in eagerly for every episode of The Real Housewives of the OC, but this spring I also got hooked on RHNYC.  Every Tuesday I watched these ladies battle it out over everything–from the question of who would play whom in a couples’ tennis match to what it means to be truly charitable.  I was there for the drama that ensued when Ramona said Luann’s husband looked “twice her age,” and the sparks that flew when Simon freaked out in the town car because the driver’s wrong turn “ruined the surprise” on Alex’s birthday, and the verbal fumblings that arose during smart-ass Bethenny’s date with a French man whose struggles with English caused him to misunderstand what it meant that Bethenny was “busting his balls.”

Yes, I tuned in for it all, faithfully, every week, including the two days that it took for Bravo to deliver to viewers the post-season “Watch What Happens” special.  The question, then, is why?  Why am I so hopelessly addicted to this show?

My answer (and here’s where fans of the show nod in agreement while those in the “How can you watch that crap?” camp snort in disgust) is that there is something…artful about the way Bravo edits their reality series; their reliance on jump cuts and camera work that catches other people’s reactions to the principle “player” in a scene heighten the comedy and consistently expose the hypocrisy of those involved.  The effect is that of an “inside joke” between the camera and the audience at home, revealing a gap between the private truth that a person believes about who she is and the public perception that often contradicts it.

With no other housewife this season was such a gap more consistently on display than with Kelly Killoren Bensimon, the newest (and, frankly, most annoying) addition to the NYC cast.  Perhaps in reality Kelly is an amazing woman who nurtures all and gives of herself freely while asking for nothing in return, but if Bravo’s editing department is to be believed, Kelly is actually a selfish, self-absorbed, delusional fame-chaser with nary four brain cells to rub together in hopes of generating a spark of intelligent thought.  Much of her screen time this season involved her ongoing feud with fan favorite Bethenny Frankel, the quick-witted divorcee whom Andy Cohen referred to as “the show’s Greek chorus.”

To her credit, Bethenny would have been happy to simply ignore Kelly, but Ms. Bensimon, a woman whose behavior this season reveals her to be someone who courts whatever spotlight she can find–even if it’s a cop’s flashlight, wanted nothing more than to pick all season at what she saw as a gaping wound left when Bethenny compared Kelly to “Madonna” during a charity meeting at which Kelly announced that she wanted her name taken off the invitiations because, “I don’t lend my name to anything.  Like, anything.  Ever.”

Offhand remarks aside, it was clear from the beginning these two wouldn’t see eye to eye.  To begin with, where Bethenny is funny and smart and “comes from a place of yes” (her way of saying she is always up for helping others), Kelly is dull and (as Alex put it in the understatement of the year) “Frankly, a little inarticulate.”  In addition to those handicaps, Kelly also “comes from a place of no.”  Of course, she views herself as heroically mature, the lone adult in her squaring off against Bethenny the child.  But when she asks Bethenny to meet her at the Brass Monkey (so that, it turns out, Kelly can berate Bethenny in front of the cameras), the hilarious irony of the entire confrontation is that Bethenny is the calm but firm parent in the scene, while Kelly resembles a tantrum-throwing four year old engaged in a fruitless attempt to bait Bethenny into fighting with her.  Bethenny later refers to the whole episode as a “Kel-amity,” and indeed, it is.

After arriving at the bar some thirty minutes late, Kelly begins her tirade by telling Bethenny, “Your attitude is for kids,” and barking, “You wanna play with me, you come up to me.  I don’t go down to you. […] I won’t put up with your antics and your bullshit.  It’s just totally inappropriate.”  It’s not clear–to Bethenny or to the viewers–what “antics” or “bullshit” Kelly is referring to; Bethenny does not engage in any sort of a shouting match or shriek-fest with Kelly, exhibiting instead a calmness that serves to drive Kelly even more insane.  “I was so disgusted by your behavior,” she scoffs, and Bethenny comes back with, “Doing what?” to which Kelly responds, “You tell me doing what.”

The whole argument (if you could call it that) is both painful and hilarious to watch.  Kelly blathers on comparing Bethenny to a child; meanwhile, Bravo’s cameras zero in on Kelly’s increasingly immature behavior–behavior that involves flailing arms, much head-tossing, and plenty of fake laughter at what Kelly hopes is Bethenny’s expense.  In a way, it’s a rather fascinating character study: Kelly is clearly playing to the cameras, thinking she will look victorious as she tries to lay Bethenny out in lavender.  But in doing so, Kelly fails realize how completely fake she actually looks.  She simply cannot get Bethenny riled up, though she tries.  She tries very, very hard.

Kelly ends the conversation (the first time) by telling Bethenny, “You know what?  I’m not talking to you.  I don’t want to know you.  You have a great life.”  But when Bethenny exits the bar, Kelly suddenly comes bounding out after her, telling her, “You need to chill out.”

“I’m calm.  I’m absolutely calm,” Bethenny says.  And the viewer at home can only laugh hysterically because Bethenny is calm; she is “absolutely calm.”  Kelly, however, is a bundle of twitchy nerves, and again the cameras record her attempts to somehow dramatize a situation in which she triumphs over Bethenny.  So as Bethenny stands on the sidewalk, cell phone in hand, face expressionless, Kelly cackles with crazy laughter and cries, “Oh my God!  You’re so crazy!  OK.  I gotta go on a date.  Bye.”  She flounces back into the restaurant as though it was Bethenny who was out of control, while everyone at home says to themselves, “Oh my God–Kelly is freaking insane.”

I realize this will sound petty, but there is something rather satisfying about watching someone who makes your skin crawl get what they deserve.  Kelly tries to portray herself as secure and “above it all,” but her behavior as it’s captured on film reveals an insecurity and lack of control that belie the very image that Kelly tries to construct for herself.  Imagine how handy it would be to occasionally have access to this kind of editing in life.  A student might come to my office, for instance, complaining about how she just “doesn’t understand” what I’m “looking for” in the papers, and I could say, “Well, I’m not surprised you’re confused, since you’re always texting in class when you should be paying attention.”  When the student tries to deny her behavior, I could cut to a montage of the student in class, texting during group work, texting during class discussion.  Or when a colleague of mine complains about not being informed of certain policy changes, we could play a montage of the fifteen meetings and twenty-five email exchanges we’ve had about said policy change.

Bravo understands the deep satisfaction that poetic justice provides, and they know how to deliver that satisfaction to their audience.  They may be far afield of their initial commitment to the arts, but if nothing else, Bravo has elevated the standard of reality TV–a genre that, on many other networks, is less about studies in character and more about a study in the crass.  It’s not James Lipton, but it’s something.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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