TV Preview: Tom Shales on 'The Real Housewives of New Jersey'
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
When an Internet gigolo who calls himself "Gucci Model" fails to show up for his first date with a cougarly 45-year-old named Danielle, she phones from the appointed bar and leaves a very bleepable message on his answering machine. "Okay, have a good life," she concludes, "or die -- I don't care."
Gucci Model's cold feet deprived the producers of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" with a potentially great -- that is, cringe-worthy -- scene, but they still have a surplus of those. Bravo's new reality series, premiering tonight on the eclectic, once-classy channel, is by turns outrageous, hilarious and mortifying but, as networks like to boast, never dull.
Among other things, Danielle and the four other women profiled in the series suggest that Carmela Soprano was absolutely no exaggeration. The Jersey Girls in the series -- fourth in a franchise behind Orange County, New York City and Atlanta -- actually make Mrs. Tony Soprano look demure and conservative by comparison.
The series doesn't qualify as sociology, except of a superficial kind, or even as real "reality," though that's the programming category it fits in. Whatever else it is, the show is supremely entertaining. Smartly edited and cleverly constructed -- the George Washington Bridge serving as a visual transition -- the series marks another auspicious entry to television's vast stockpile of Guilty Pleasures. It's the Tuesday-night series most likely to be talked about on Wednesday morning, the completion of many a question along the lines of "Did you see that?"
One problem, of course, is that television already has Guilty Pleasures aplenty -- so many that it may be time to start a Guilty Pleasures channel, GPTV, which could operate like the Fox Reality Channel: reruns of examples from the genre (including the so-bad-they're-good things) and maybe some of that "original programming" that repository channels always insist on creating. Yes, there are people who would sit and watch this stuff day-in and night-out as a substitute for living lives of their own.
"Real Housewives of New Jersey" is a rhapsody in beige, a fascinating journey through a world of $1.5 million houses, minimum price -- although the full effect of the nation's economic collapse seems not yet to have been felt, in the premiere. The women keep themselves in shape, most of them, but their major exercise is acquiring stuff. And always the homes must get bigger, bigger, bigger. One woman conducts a tour of the cavernous behemoth she and hubby are building in suburbia, all marble and granite and onyx (Oh, my!). "I am going for the French chateau look," she deadpans, shelling out wads of cash at a furniture store for atrocious reproductions of the already ersatz.
The women primp and prattle, go shopping at boutiques and play tennis at the country club, and try to raise children who are "fabulous." They keep their husbands either at bay or well under control, and speak in cliches like "not my cup of tea," "curiosity killed the cat" and "thick as thieves."
They are thick as thieves, curiosity doesn't kill these cats so much as sustain them, and if their lives -- or "lifestyles" as they prefer to call them -- are not your cup of tea, that hardly means you won't revel in a good wallow. Just think: These people really exist. They really talk like that, and dress like that, and get coiffed to the gills like that.
Materialism is gospel and luxuries unapologetically worshiped. Danielle boasts that she had the first black American Express Card (the hardest one to get) in New Jersey: "I actually got mine before Madonna did."
"In high school, I had 'the big hair,' and I thought I was the hottest thing," recalls Teresa, who drives the requisite bad black SUV. "My husband, Joe, is gorgeous," she insists, then visits him in the sparsely furnished and temporary-looking offices of his "construction business." Her friend Dina, introducing herself at the outset, says: "If you think I'm a bitch, bring it on. If you don't know me, keep your mouth shut." Caroline and her husband run a profitable catering service and head up what Caroline calls "a good old-fashioned Italian family." Caroline's son Christopher, 19, wears a T-shirt that says simply "Yo" in the upper left-hand corner; his version of the American dream is to open a chain of combination carwash/strip clubs.
But it's the divorced and slightly desperate Danielle who's the most fascinating of the group, and the oldest, and the one who appears to have the largest number of story possibilities. When the young man she met on the Internet, and had "wow" phone sex with for months, fails to show at the bar for their first date, she holds her remodeled chin high and keeps her dignity just as firmly as she kept the wedding ring from her collapsed marriage.
The word "housewife" fell out of favor with the first flush of feminism, but these women use it without complaint to describe themselves. Besides, the term implies being married to a house, and for some of the women, that seems clearly to be the case. Meanwhile, it seems from the very first chapter that -- unless later episodes get into the recession -- a sequel is in order, a chance to see whether these women escape economic calamity or succumb. "I don't want to struggle with money," Danielle says. Who does? If only the choice were ours to make.
The Real Housewives of New Jersey (one hour) premieres tonight at 11 on Bravo. Starting next week, the series airs in the 10 p.m. time slot.