From the Orange to the Apple to the Georgia Peach, Bravo’s popular Women With Money franchise has now fetched up “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” As in “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and “The Real Housewives of New York,” there is a dollop of irony attached to the phrase “real housewives.”
Back in the Great Depression, Hollywood made a lot of movies about rich people, having determined that the struggling masses would rather live a pleasant dream of prosperity for a couple of hours than be reminded of what they faced the rest of the day. Taking up that standard for the 21st century, Bravo -- with shows like “Million Dollar Listing,” “Blow Out,” “The Rachel Zoe Project” and “Real Housewives” -- has positioned itself as the Network for People Who Will Be First Against the Wall When the Revolution Comes, or at least for those who are fascinated by those folks. Even as the economy continues to tank, or crater, or sulk, we can take comfort that there are still Americans who can buy a Cadillac Escalade on a whim or spend $1,200 on a birthday cake.
Given that in most respects they’re the same show, there is nevertheless a clear regional difference among the various “Real Housewives.” The activity -- the conspicuous overconsumption, the ceaseless crafting of the image and remaking of the body, the feuds, the reconciliations, the often age-inappropriate competitive dressing -- is largely the same, but it’s couched in different cultures, different aspirations, different communities, different styles.
The most obvious change in the current edition is that the cast is largely African American. (Housewife Lisa is black and Chinese, and housewife Kim considers herself “a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body.”) They’re younger also, on the whole, and seem to me less in thrall to plastic surgery, not that I’m, like, an expert at spotting that. They have more people working for them -- publicists, chefs, assistants, nannies, stylists, “a maid crew” -- and I can’t remember any earlier Housewife who had a bowling alley in her basement.
Of the five stars, two are not, strictly speaking, wives. NeNe is married to a real estate investor; super-fit hyper-workaholic Lisa and comparatively down-to-earth DeShawn are married to professional athletes; Sheree, who is the steeliest and possibly the neediest, is almost divorced from a professional athlete; and Kim has an off-camera multimillionaire boyfriend known only as “Big Papa.” (He is a voice on the phone, like Charlie in “Charlie’s Angels.”) “I hope I get the big proposal,” says Kim, who for now is making do with the Escalade.
There are at least two ways to regard these people and the shows that contain them:
(1) They are fabulous.
(2) They are horrifying.
If you think they’re fabulous, well, fabulous. But much of the audience for reality television comes explicitly for the horror, and there is plenty to be horrified by, even if you consider only the carbon footprint this lifestyle creates.
It’s true that the form works as a kind of enabler for people whose desire to see themselves on television outstrips that they might look awful on it. Most of us know well enough to keep cameras out of our lives. I might easily be portrayed as a man who spends half the day watching television and the other half staring at a computer screen, occasionally pausing to eat a bowl of cold cereal. (Oh, wait . . . .)
But there is always more to the story.
Even the most apparently superficial and self-involved humans have what most of us would recognize as “real feelings.” They may be pouring some of their time or money-buckets into good causes. (See: the DeShawn Snow Foundation.) They may read their kids to sleep at night. At least some of these marriages look healthy and supportive.
As much as “The Real Housewives” begs us to judge, it can also, oddly, teach us not to.
‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesdays
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)