Decay at play in the O.C.


Four women sit at a table attempting to counsel a fifth. The youngest of the group has brought up that, while her much older and very wealthy fiance is dying of cancer -- he is languishing in the hospital as they speak -- and she has been his primary caretaker for the last two years, she does not know if she is a beneficiary of either his will or his insurance policy. What should she do?

In the hands of a novelist or playwright, this would be one of Those Moments, in which the small tap of a simple question shatters the brittle facade of social convention and reveals the true nature of things. Marriage or money, the bitter complications of love or the irreducible chasm between expectation and reality.

Instead, the conversation quickly devolves into a petty power play, suffocated by a narcissism so dense you would think it was made of Spanx. Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough and Tamra Barney all advise Gretchen Rossi to get on that beneficiary list before it’s too late, because that’s what they’d do. When Lynne Curtin disagrees, Vicki accuses her of being rude and confrontational, and flounces off.


So it’s true then. John Updike is dead and we are left with “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

Chronicling the bourgeoisie is a rich and significant literary tradition. Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton measured the exquisite tension between love and money, integrity and comfort, investigating the lives of women and men who used income as a measuring stick and marriage as a social upgrade. A century later, writers such as Updike, John Cheever and J.D. Salinger explored what became of people when they were removed from the glorious, grimy business of city life to this new world of green lawns and identically echoing houses. Nothing good, it seemed. The social tapestry grew monochromatic and stifling. Women seethed silently as they waited for the commuter trains to disgorge their army of suits and narrow ties so everyone could start drinking hard and working their way toward adultery.

But while other recent forays into suburban fiction -- basic cable’s “Mad Men,” the film version of “Revolutionary Road,” the novels of Tom Perrotta and Rick Moody -- remain true to the palettes of the masters, the truly modern version is, for better or worse, Bravo’s “Real Housewives” series (10 p.m. Tuesdays). Here is a truly postmillennial prism.

You can argue that “Real Housewives” is maddening or delicious, depressing or ridiculous, a symbol of the vapid, mindless consumption that has sunk the economy and scrambled the American consciousness or a tongue-in-cheek takedown of same. I mean, just look at these women and how they’re presented, the raccoon eyes and the god-awful fake breasts, the fried hair and yanked-up faces. Are any of them ever shown reading a book or seeing a play? Visiting a museum (for the record, the Galleria is not one), picking up a newspaper or having a conversation about anything that mattered at all? Of course not. These housewives of Orange County are too busy downing tequila shooters, redecorating their redecorated houses, admiring their cosmetic surgery and wondering why their kids are so screwed up (!) to have actual lives. They embody the moral, spiritual and intellectual anorexia that writers have grappled with for years, but in terms a child can understand. Cheever for Dummies.

Forget Updike and his belief in “giving the mundane its beautiful due.” Who needs beautiful due? Want to argue the empty desperation of suburban motherhood and thwarted dreams? Don’t bother deconstructing “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Just throw ol’ Vicki and Tamra on a pontoon down at Lake Havasu, where they can trade petty gossip and utterly ignore their younger children while watching their older (but still underage) children get frat-party drunk. Salinger’s heroine wept over her daughter’s glasses; Tamra goes bananas when her son Ryan reveals the tattoo on the inside of his lower lip. (“Why?” Tamra drunkenly sobbed like the tragic heroine she envisions herself to be, while the rest of us were surprised only by the fact that the tattoo did not read: “Get me off this show.” )

Looking to portray women trapped in a self-stitched straitjacket of conformity? Forget fatal ambivalence. Play up the painfully perfect implants, the dermabrased shiny cheeks and tugged-wide mouth. Send in the stylists and show us women so shellacked with makeup and nail polish and hair care products that their brains may actually be deprived of oxygen. Then let their children make fun of them. To their faces. That’s trapped by conformity, dude, up close and personal.

In the end, the big reveal of “Real Housewives” is that there is no big reveal, beyond the news flash that money does not make you happy or nice or even very interesting. This is 2009. There is no poetry in the suburbs, no art to be gleaned from the battle between society and the individual. Society won, pal, and what’s wrong with that?

No one in these suburbs is secretly yearning to live in Paris or be a painter, and if there is any self-doubt, it’s buried under the silt of professionally prescribed pharmaceuticals and the belief that looking straight at the camera makes you seem more serious. Hedda Gabler left the building years ago; these heroines are tragic only in their lack of consciousness. Vicki thinks self-esteem is synonymous with intolerance and rudeness, Tamra is a pathetic little backstabber, Jeana needs to dial down her dosage and either fire her trainer or start working out already, Lynne has no clue and those bracelets are butt-ugly, and Gretchen, well, we were sad to learn of her fiance’s death after the show stopped filming and hope it put things in a little perspective. Throughout this season, one has felt that it was not too late for Gretchen.

It’s hard not to worry, just a little, that given the tanking economy, the wives and their gated communities may soon be stormed by disgruntled O.C. peasants bearing pitchforks and tiki torches. But even if “Real Housewives” does make it through the lean times, these women will no doubt remain right where we all want them to be: trapped in the fabulous shabbiness of their lives, having conversations that run back and forth like trained rats along dim and narrow mazes of the mundane.

Which is precisely why we will always need our poets. Now more than ever, no one more so than those housewives down in the O.C.