A year of national reckonings on race and inequality has tested how real the Housewives should be.
In 2020, Reba Bonaparte considered work opportunities. Bravo had been pursuing a hospitality executive for years trying to get her to join the cast of Southern Charms. The series, which premiered in 2014, featured a group of Gentil degenerates living in Charleston, South Carolina. For many seasons, the central tension has been the romance between Thomas Lovenell, a former accountant from South Carolina who resigned after being indicted on drug charges, and the mother of his 21-year-old girlfriend and his two children, Catherine Calhoun Dennis. (It’s Calhoun, like John C. Calhoun, vice president of slavery in the United States.) Dennis and Lovenell were drawn to each other in a way that they felt was real but dangerous. Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it is plausible that they would have a happy ending or die at each other’s hands. Along with the show’s other stars, Dennis and Lovenell played polo and sipped rosé from a pint glass while dressed in brick-colored shorts embroidered with the creature. This activity often take place on the ancestral plantations of the cast, but sometimes the non-decadent Bonaparte comes into Bonaparte’s restaurants.
But when Bonaparte’s debut season began filming last February, she found herself in the role of educator rather than a reality star. In her scenes, filmed especially in the months following the police killing of George Floyd, she is asked to explain racism to her white castmates. Bonaparte, who is Persian and whose husband and son are black, trys to get Dennis to understand what it means for a statue of John C. Calhoun to be toppled, and explains why it was wrong for Dennis to send monkey emojis to black activists in the battle over Instagram DM.
“It was hard,” Bonaparte told me of those efforts. “I started to feel a little gaslight. “Oh, this is a new person bullying Catherine. The emotion I got from a lot of people was, “You came to the show and ruined it for me!” Was. Even though Southern Charm had previously taken up Dennis and Cover’s substance abuse issues and Dennis and Lovenell’s tortured custody battle, did viewers mean the light show was an inappropriate venue for serious issues, or did Bonaparte ruin the fun by making it impossible to ignore racism, the reality of the past and present? I found it exhausting,” says Bonaparte. “I just wanted them to be conscious and say, ‘That’s part of my history, it’s part of American history.’ And I want to do everything possible to make amends.
Before last year, Bravo didn’t seem particularly interested in hiring someone who could have a nuanced conversation about inequality. The network’s reality show featured at-be silly people behaving badly, but they did so with what the network’s frontman, Andy Cohen, called “Bravo Wink”: an edit that informs viewers that what’s going on is ridiculous, not an explicit reprimand. This could be anything from a montage highlighting hypocrisy to the remaining shots of one cast member soberly soting wine as her co-stars drunkenly rolled around on the grass or threw flutes. As we enjoyed the on-screen chaos, viewers were comfortable with passive observers, safe and un-broken wine glasses.
Recently, however, many fans have begun to question who deserves access to the Bravo platform. It’s no longer enough for Bravo to wink at viewers. To be successful, the network and its stars need to understand how to make good TELEVISION in the sense that it can be watched, but not only is it good in the sense that it is ethical, but at least not so obviously bad. So what does television’s smallest, stupidest, most dramatic network look like when it grows its conscience.
The truth is there is no rule book,” Cohen tells me through a video screen dressed in tie-dye at his West Village co-op. Like other hosts in late night, Cohen temporarily had to watch what happens on his talk show, Live, and shoot remotely, and he’s first lighting a candle and then hitting the game as a shift around his home studio that seems to have something to do with his hands. “Everything is a case-by-case situation. The goalposts are always on the move.
Despite knowing the cast members for years, his baby shower was hosted by five Real Housewives, including two who would then leave the network – Cohen, who seems to be able to compartmentalize the star’s dual roles as fallable humans and TV characters essential to his show, much of his executive production. He is an executive who has turned on his on-screen talent, providing Bravo with something between J.K. Rowling’s world-building micromanberging and The Great Oz and the powerful Perceived Almighty of Oz. Cohen says that in relation to the cast, his role encompasses “friends, enemies, bosses, allies, fathers and boyfriends.”
“At the end of the day, it’s the cheerleaders that I have the most. Because the truth of the matter is that I want each of them to succeed. If each succeeds, it is a success for me. Believe me. Otherwise, it’s more of a problem for me because we have to find something new.
The Real Housewives debuted 15 years ago as a voyeur trip past the guard booth of Gate Orange County Community Kotodekaza. Re-watching the early seasons, which were directed by the current executive vice president of programming Shari Levine, they feel like Lauren Greenfield movies documenting a bright, recession-rich life. After the market crashed, the show went bigger, more interesting and campy to make up for the richness they no longer necessarily showed. Bravo, best known before the mid-2000s for recasting Inside the Actors Studios and niche films, handed them over to the housewives themselves, expanded from west to east with the Real Housewives of New York, and headed to the Real Housewives of Atlanta. The casting requirements remained the same: having enough money to look rich (a common insult is to blame the person renting her mansion), and having enough personality to incite confrontation with other women. And the rules of engagement quickly developed. You can go after someone’s parenting, but their child can’t. Unless you are willing to scrutinize your own drinking, you can question someone’s motives, but not the consumption of boos. You can throw a glass or a table, but only if someone despises you, for example, by implying without evidence that your husband is cheating on you.