‘Housewives’ in a parallel universe
“Eighty-five percent of the women around here have had breast implants,” says Kimberly, matter-of-factly.
It’s what passes for a census study behind the gates of Coto de Caza, an O.C. development for the nouveau riche and the setting of Bravo’s sad and highly watchable new reality soap, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
Middle-aged Kimberly, first glimpsed in various compromising poses with her Pilates instructor, is quite content with her new 32Ds, although she thinks her 13-year-old daughter can wait. “I know out here that it’s very common that girls receive breast implants for high school graduation,” says mom.
The show, an obvious riff on “Desperate Housewives” and “Laguna Beach: The Real OC,” is less glossily executed than those but also, for all this, trashier and more believably grotesque.
As “Laguna Beach” did, “Real Housewives” (that title, given the saline and Botox, is a nice irony) posits Orange County as a vacuous paradise found. Here it’s soccer (ish) moms get to act out their lives for the cameras. The show is built either to nauseate or fascinate; I myself danced between periods of both, which is probably just what the producers, layering on the scripted scenarios, intend.
And yet, when I least expected it, voila -- pathos. For in their urgent, unapologetic acceptance of this kind of life, the ladies come off, finally, as sad and alone -- adherents to an extreme kind of community as much as the wives of HBO’s polygamist drama “Big Love,” but without the camaraderie.
It’s hard, in that sense, to tell how mean the show’s producers will ultimately get with their guinea pigs; half the show is a wry, knowing glance from the editing room. For sure, “The Real Housewives” is built for gawking as at a zoo, the gates a controlling metaphor. Coto de Caza, according to its website, is one of Orange County’s older planned communities, where “the first residents ... were Shoshonean Native Americans called Acaghchemen.” Now the place is inhabited by Kimberly and Jeana and Slade, with kids named Brianna and Colton and Ashley. Their rituals include face peels, overseeing escrows and, to get away, vacations to Mexico.
“Lick it, suck it, slam it, Brianna. Do it, Brianna. Do it, do it!”
That’s Vicki Gunvalson, giving her 18-year-old daughter some helpful drinking tips on a Mexican cruise (in the Bravo press release Vicki is described as a “devout Christian”). The other wives are Kimberly Bryant, the wife of “an executive with a Fortune 200 company”; Jeana Keough, an early ‘80s Playboy Playmate who appears, in contrast with the others, to have actually let herself age; Jo De La Rosa, a still-in-her-20s trophy piece; and Lauri Waring, a divorced mom who works for Vicki’s insurance brokerage, lives in a “town home” and is yearning to get back to her former life behind the gates.
In tone and look, the show is a far cry from “Laguna Beach,” which bathed actual rich kids in a feature film of their lives, artfully fabricated and paced. “The Real Housewives,” by contrast, is more “Being Bobby Brown.” It’s also got some Christopher Guest mock-documentary moments -- as when Jo’s fiance, Slade, who more or less recalls the jock-heavy in a “Revenge of the Nerds” movie, describes what makes his relationship with Jo tick: “I’m eager to teach; she’s eager to learn.” Jo, for her part, is seen perched in bored repose on the countertop of Slade’s gleaming, empty kitchen. He’d like her to be there waiting for him, like his valeted Hummer, and to meanwhile take some interest in his kids -- two boys from two women. Jo’s lonely predicament, like so much of “The Real Housewives,” plays like a soft-core porn setup. Instead, Jo’s life is juxtaposed against the more acclimated housewives: the imperious Vicki and chirpy Kimberly, who befriends Jo over drinks at a restaurant, in one of the premiere’s clumsier arrangements.
As you might imagine, the kids are mostly apples that haven’t fallen far from the tree. Jeana’s eldest son, Shane, a baseball player laboring under his father’s formidable gaze (Matt Keough, former pitcher for the Oakland A’s), blows off his high school graduation ceremony just as Mom and Dad do. Mom’s got this big charity event that day, and, well, fundraising trumps education. It’s the matter-of-factness toward all this that gives “The Real Housewives” its tension. Bravo is pairing the premiere with the third-season bow of “Blow Out,” the saga of Jonathan Anton, Beverly Hills stylist and would-be hairspray king. But that show’s all about one man’s hard-selling of his personality, whereas on “The Real Housewives,” the non-actors non-act more naturally.
“My husband and his mother picked me out of several of his girlfriends because they thought that I had the right build for their genetics,” says Jeana.
I mean, really, could you un-script it any better than that?
‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’
When: 10 to 11 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)