A real sense of morality? Bravo, Bravo

By Hank Stuever
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vicki, Jeana and the other "Real Housewives of Orange County" come back to television Thursday, and life there seems subdued and less sunny these days. Viewers first met the O.C. wives in the spring of 2006, which might as well have been some other American epoch, when aspiration was all and money flowed like a river.

In this season's opening scene, Vicki attempts an afternoon of quality time with her adult son and daughter, who've always treated her like an annoying but reliable ATM, by partaking in one of the oldest tropes of reality television: Let's all go skydiving! It's a rare lapse in original thinking from the folks at Bravo, who have taken "The Real Housewives" series from Orange County's initial recipe through three more fascinating and morally revealing permutations. (They are now cooking up a Washington version.)

You have to love the subtle, mythological subtext going on as poor Vicki plummets from the plane: These housewives flew too close to the sun. They set the template for Bravo's ruminations on the pitfalls of privilege and narcissism. And compared with their skank sistren in New Jersey and Atlanta, the Orange County wives come across this time like soulful, thoughtful, heartbroken creatures. Which is saying something.

Back on earth (in this case, the gated Coto de Caza, a master-planned McMansionville and the petri dish for Bravo's master-planned programming), Jeana sits in her vast home and contemplates her fate with only slightly less dramatic flourish than Norma Desmond. Jeana is a real-estate agent who used to sell homes in Coto for $2 million-plus but her market has dried up, and her marriage is over. Her spoiled teenage son, Colton, lectures her about spending. The only word for this is rich.

This is Bravo doing what Bravo does best -- imparting, in the slyest and most intuitive of ways, a sense of what's right and what's wrong. Much hubris (and many martini happy hours) brought us collectively to this point and now a new reality pervades the lifestyles that Bravo built its schedule exalting; the Great Recession has given its schedule more texture and human foible, and, in a way, it feels like the people at Bravo knew this would happen all along and set us on a path of social justice.

For somewhere in all of Bravo's saucy reality-series tumult -- amid the housewives' catfights and the sharp-as-knives insults between competing chefs, amid all those narcissistic salon owners and assorted, pouty fashionistas and real-estate flippers -- the cable network has developed something that can only be described a defined moral center.

Yes, a moral center, and yes, that Bravo. The channel is a sort of ESPN for gay men and their simpatico BFF divas, all of it so neon-pink and deceptively shallow-seeming, with its relentless devotion to documenting the deflation of inflated-egos. It's something the network hardly talks about or analyzes (why would it? Bravo succeeds by its ability to tantalize and scandalize, not hypothesize) but season after season, it's strongly there: an ethos. People on Bravo, one way or another, always get what's coming to them.

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"Tabatha's Salon Takeover," which returns to Bravo for a second season Tuesday night, is another homily preached in the church of Bravo, one that prizes the virtues of skill and craftsmanship ("Project Runway" and "Top Chef") above all else: Here, Tabatha Coffey, a 40-year-old Australian stylist with an icy demeanor and a permanent scowl, comes into various American beauty salons to scold the owners and staff for their poor service and pathetic sense of business.

You don't have to give one whit about the hairstyling business to enjoy the catharsis of watching her chew out bad business owners, and you don't have to work very hard to see "Tabatha's Salon Takeover" as a convenient stand-in for American rage at Wall Street, the service industry and the general malaise of the workplace. The salons stand in for AIG and GM; Tabatha stands for reform.

In Tuesday's episode, she confronts Eddie Chung, whose once-trendy Chicago salon, Orbit, has gone down the tubes. After 20 years of business, he's $750,000 in debt and Tabatha makes him literally pour a bottle of his expensive shampoo overstock down the sink, while his inept staff stands by and gently weeps. "This is what you're doing," Tabatha barks. "You are pouring money down the drain."

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"Our viewers want answers," says Andy Cohen, the 41-year-old executive producer at Bravo who has gradually become one of the network's on-camera stars and its voice of reason. "They never just watch. They are deeply engaged in what happens on [the shows]. . . . It's like we're putting pop culture and society on trial. They want to know why someone did what they did, what else was said. They want people to account for what they've done."

Cohen has played a key role in shaping Bravo's vision of a conflicted world. In 2003, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" sparked what would become the network's way of combining aspirational "lifestyle" programming (paint your living room, clean up your wardrobe) with shows that would venture provocatively into the everyday drama of life. (Even if "everyday" involves opulent real-estate and "Millionaire Matchmaker.")

Without ever once seeming like a self-help network, Bravo allows its viewers to confront the biggies in life, all of which transcend class, race and gender: parenting (good and bad), relationships, moral relativism, consumerism, values and a creeping sense of soullessness in the modern world.

In his own weekly talk show, "Watch What Happens Live," Cohen invites the subjects of Bravo's reality shows to sit with him and explain themselves and their actions. Before "Watch What Happens" debuted last summer, Cohen had been blogging about the network's shows and "characters" and dilemmas. The success of "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" more or less demanded a conclusive "reunion show" in which participants would confront one another at season's end, and answer viewers' most urgent questions, which almost always begin with a "Why did you . . . ?" and "How did you feel when . . . ?" Cohen, an effervescent interlocutor, acted as moderator.

Now he is also bartender, party host, prosecutor, ombudsman and therapist. (He serves cocktails to his guests; even the cagiest "Real Housewife" always warms up to his light and fizzy manner. Keep in mind, of course, that the people who star in Bravo's reality shows are paid for their time and many of them have spun off books, pop songs and the like. Bravo is a mutual back-scratching salon.)

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As one who wallows in what reality television has to offer and then hates myself later for doing it, I think Bravo is unfairly lumped in with the worst of what other networks offer in the way of altered nonfiction: VH1 and E!, the Sodom and Gomorrah of cable's lesser climes, offer sin without salvation ("Tool Academy 2"; "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" or Hugh Hefner drooling over his concubines), even as Dr. Drew labors in vain to cure celebrity addictions.

TLC, which has an unhealthy predilection for gawking at rare medical conditions, morbid obesity and multiple births, found success with "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and then failed to build out that show's ready-made lesson about fame's giant Slip 'n Slide.

And the big networks -- ABC with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Wife Swap," and "Supernanny"; NBC with "The Biggest Loser" -- persist in seeing reality shows as a gateway drug to more empty promises of positive thinking and platitude. CBS, meanwhile, relies on an almost nihilistic, "Lord of the Flies" presumption, in which humans must eliminate one another and survive to the finish.

Bravo, however, seems to believe in people. Like any reality-TV machine, it brutally edits them into certain narrative stereotypes, but what it doesn't do is edit them into "issues." It focuses first on characters and story (real characters, caught up in utterly banal and yet utterly real stories) and then considers the solution or conclusion. Sometimes there isn't one. Bravo asks its very engaged audiences to decide right from wrong, to judge the sinner apart from the sin, and to do unto others as if the camera is always watching you.

Because the camera is always watching you. Maybe the camera is God after all?

Tabatha's Salon Takeover (one hour) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m.; The Real Housewives of Orange County (one hour) airs Thursday at 10 p.m.; Watch What Happens Live (30 minutes) airs Thursday at midnight; all on Bravo.

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