Is it possible for people to be fascinating bores? If so, there’s a crop of them about to sprout on Bravo.
“The Real Housewives of Orange County” is a persistently diverting journey by producers and camera crews in search of the glib, the flippant and the ostensibly hip of Southern California.
The happy hunting ground the cameras scour happens to be the very same locale as Fox’s prime-time soap “The O.C.” “Real Housewives,” however, says as much about the state of reality TV as it does about the strange land south of Los Angeles. People seem less and less reluctant to let cameras and microphones intrude into the most personal corners of their lives, and it’s becoming almost commonplace to have people followed around not by an entourage, exactly, but by a crew.
Bravo’s title for the show is two-pronged. By using the word “housewives,” the filmmakers indicate there’s irony afoot—because the word is socially verboten otherwise. Prong 2: The series obviously is trying to capitalize on another hit show, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”—though for the record, ABC says that “Desperate Housewives” is set in an unspecified state whose identity never will be revealed.
Whatever chords of recognition the series is trying to pluck, it stands on its own—and would stand taller with a better title—as a penetrating tour of the chilly hearts, meandering minds, wobbly marriages and shimmering swimming pools of Orange County. Until the Fox series came along, “the O.C.” was never called “the O.C.” and was known principally as a conservative Republican enclave where the airport is named after John Wayne and oceanfront property is reserved for the very, very super-rich.
Locked behind the gates
The five women profiled in “Real Housewives” aren’t wildly wealthy, but most do live in casual comfort; some of their houses might remind you of Tony and Carmela’s place way back in New Jersey. To give you an idea of the style of living: A teenage boy is given a new Mercedes-Benz as a present from his parents, but when his friends claim that the model is a “girls’ Mercedes,” the boy complains and is promptly given a new one, a different model. The original car goes to his 16-year-old sister.
A short prologue informs us that in Orange County, it’s extremely common for families to live in gated communities, and that appears to be the case with the series’s main characters. One divorcee, who temporarily is impoverished because her alimony hasn’t started pouring in, laments that she misses very much “being behind the gate.”
Just the women’s first names seem to say something about them: Vicki, Lauri, Kimberly, Jeana and Jo, most of whom are in their forties. And the kids, of course, have such cool monikers as Slade, Shane, Travis, Bianca, Brianna, Connor, Colby and Kara. When you see them, you’ll know that the names somehow suit them.
Cameras simply follow the women, their families and friends around as they pretty much while the hours away, and the whiling is not very wily. They take tennis lessons, shop, go to bars, hold down simple jobs, shop, take their daughters shopping and talk about men. Since in several cases what God hath joined together has long since been split asunder (or only recently, in one instance), the women go out together on man patrols, usually at trendy bars.
Pickings aren’t always perfect. “The bartenders aren’t even that cute,” one woman complains as they survey the scene in one establishment. “We don’t have a problem attracting men,” one woman says in voice-over. “That’s not to say they’re always the right kind of men—but definitely there’s men to be found.”
For the most part, the kids take the lush lifestyles in stride, and their problems don’t seem alien from those of normal, less pampered kids in normal, less pampered places. Shane, 18, apparently decides he doesn’t want to have a graduation party when high school is over and instead duplicates the pose—either intentionally or by miraculous coincidence—that Dustin Hoffman struck while floating in a swimming pool in “The Graduate.”
But not all the kids’ problems can be solved with shopping trips. Josh, who was born just as his parents’ marriage was imploding, repeatedly has been in trouble. Now 16, having passed through drug and alcohol phases, he is sent off to the Juvenile Justice Center by his distraught mom.
The show flits quickly among the various families and their stories. Sometimes one wonders, when watching reality shows, why the people on camera allowed themselves to look ridiculous in front of the viewing millions. But the people of Orange County as seen in this documentary look as though they couldn’t care less, that the whole thing is a kind of kick for them, and maybe an excuse to have parties when each episode airs (there will be seven, Bravo says). The gates are there to keep out people—not “the media.”
One thing is clear: Sociologists and anthropologists of the future are going to have tons and tons of material to sift through as they try to understand what life was like in the first decade of the 21st century. In fact, there’s so much tape and film, they could probably live it all over again. But who would want to? This decade has given every indication of being perfect fodder for the trash heap of history.
We do have lots of TV, that’s for sure. And Bravo, which used to be quite the stodgy and musty video attic, has become a hip, smart center of water-cooler video—such as the just-concluded “Project Runway”—since it was taken over by NBC and since Lauren Zalaznick, previously the resident trendsetter at Trio, became president two years ago.
Bravo also happens to be the cable entertainment network with the highest proportion of affluent viewers, a spokeswoman says. Would these be the kind of affluent viewers profiled in “The Real Housewives of Orange County”? Probably not. They’d more likely be watching one of cable’s 700 shopping channels.
Or, if they do look in on “Real Housewives,” it will not be for insights into contemporary values or modern American materialism. It will be to see how their hair looks on television and whether those Botox treatments were worth the money.