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Bravo: TV's unlikely moral center

Bravo's "Tabitha's Salon Takeover" with Tabitha Coffey, left.
Bravo's "Tabitha's Salon Takeover" with Tabitha Coffey, left. (Brian Kersey - Bravo)

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Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009; 1:00 PM

Bravo, writes Hank Stuever, has found a way to make reality shows like "Real Housewives of Orange County" and "Tabatha's Salon Takeover" into lessons about right and wrong. He took your questions about the cable channel's approach and the shows premiering this week.

Read: A real sense of morality? Bravo, Bravo


Hank Stuever: Hi, watchers. I wish this chat was being hosted by Zoila from Bravo's "Flipping Out" -- St. Zoila of the Windex, pray for us -- but alas, you are stuck with me.

This chat is occasioned by my essay-istic piece in Sunday's Art & Style section about the underlying moral center to Bravo's reality programming. There's a link above. You could do me the kindness of clicking on it and scrolling through it to get the basic gist OR you can just talk about NeNe and Kim. Either way. I am yours for an hour.

We can talk about almost anything, hopefully TV-centered.

Some of you may not know me. (Why would you?) I am, in job title, the Post's new television critic.


You heard me. Although news of this went out on the internets a few months ago, it occurs to me that we never really told our readers about it. Let me explain: TOM SHALES, who has been the critic for 32 years and basically invented the form, is still on board, writing a column, hosting a chat, and covering momentously televised events from time to time, as well as (I hope) still writing some reviews.

LISA de MORAES, her fabulousness, is our TV Columnist, covering the beast that that is the television industry. And I think, sentence for sentence, she also manages to be the funniest critic you could find anywhere about what's ON TV.

So what am I doing, you ask?: The daily TV reviews, some longer pieces, and, as I get the hang of things, some features. All about what's on TV, with an eye toward: Is it good or does it suck, and What Does it Mean to Our Culture.

Readers, you couldn't be in better hands. You can thank us by actually subscribing to the paper.

Let's talk Bravo, shall we?


Silver Spring, Md.: Darn you, Stuever! Just as I was being somewhat successful in cutting out the Reality TV, you come along and say it means something!

Hank Stuever: My bad!

The central thesis is this: Bravo is doing something -- it is by no means pure or noble-minded, on its face -- but nevertheless it is imparting some basic ethos, a value: You should watch and LEARN how not to behave.

Other reality shows simply wallow in people's horribleness. It's a fine line.


You had me at "ESPN for gay men," VA: Just needed to swear my love for you in a public forum. I know I'll never be your simpatico BFF, but I'll stay subscribed to the Post if you keep on writing for it. Deal?

Hank Stuever: I could bathe in this. Please make all questions like this, and I will enjoy this hour significantly more.


Reston, Va.: Hi Hank: It seems like in the early days of RHofOC, the only character who had anything "real" going on in her life was Lauri who was dealing with a drug-addicted son. She was almost as vapid as the rest of them, but it was heart breaking watching her that story. I think she left the show last season and then they backfilled with a bunch of boring bimbos.

It will be interesting seeing them deal with the downside of hubris this season...or, am I giving them too much credit? Is this the recession OC style?

Hank Stuever: What I liked most in Lauri's storylines (strange to call reality a "storyline" but it happens more and more) was that she consciously turned away from the show, seeming to genuinely worry that being on TV and dealing with life's problems are not two things that should co-exist.


Southern Maryland: I saw an episode of "Real Housewives" a few months ago for the first and last time. I was turned off by the Jerry Springer attitude that seemed to pervade the show. Springer's show would find the worst examples of freakish behavior just so viewers could feel morally superior by jeering at the freaks.

Presenting the "Real Housewives" as ill-tempered, materialistic and narcissistic seems to provide that same sense of moral superiority. In this case, it may be a denial of one's jealousy of the women's beauty and relative wealth, where one either wants to be them or sleep with them.

Someone at the Post wrote a while back that Paris Hilton embodies that phenomenon - was it you? In any case, maybe I was turned off because I had the foolish idea that it was possible for a "reality" show to portray people as three-dimensional personalities instead of as caricatured stereotypes.

Hank Stuever: I don't _think_ I wrote that about Paris Hilton, pretty sure I did not. I swore off writing about her when she went to jail and messed up one of my advance-written "Question Celebrity" columns for the Sunday mag. It was over then between us.

There are huge differences in the Real Housewives permutations. The Orange County show now looks like it's inhabited by quiet, simple women compared to the constant screaming and immaturity of Atlanta. And let's not even talk about New Jersey. (No, let's: The accents alone make me break out in hives.) I think Bravo smartly supplies the rope with which these different casts have hung themselves. I think the whole RH franchise is precariously close to creative collapse -- in Atlanta, especially, it seems the only narrative thrust (he said 'thrust') is to get them in the same room, stand back, watch'em fight.

All of which makes OC look like Masterpiece Theater.


Herndon, Va.: Does anyone watch "The Real Housewives of..." with an attitude other than contempt or disgust? (Disguising the more serious question, namely, what is the national fascination with utterly shallow, vain, materialistic and despicable people that makes these shows profitable?)

Hank Stuever: I have. Weirdly, I get most disgusted at the children of the RH's, mostly the ones who are in their early 20s and seem designed (or edited) to freak me the freak out about the next generation of Americans. It's not their actions so much as their sloth. Their helplessness.

Again, I think this is Bravo unintentionally emitting some sort of wake-up alarm. Is anyone going to answer it? Will the housewives themselves answer it? Sometimes they do. Sometimes they see themselves and will say, at a reunion special, that they need to get a better grip on their parenting. It's amazing how much of that series wasn't about being a wife so much as about being a mother.


Arlington, VA: Any guesses for who will be on Housewives -- DC Edition? Who would YOU put on it if you were casting?

Hank Stuever: Boy, this is much better handled by our crack reporting team of Argetstinger/Roberts several cubicles over.

For Real Housewives of DC, I would have cast "Mother Harriette" Walters and her friends, who relieved the DC property tax office of $50 million or so of unwatched revenues, but they're all in jail now. However, I would watch it if it was set in jail, too. Basically, if "Bravo" is stamped on the screener, I watch it. Don't always love it, but definitely watch it.


7 day per week WaPo paper getter: Bravo to you Hank! (pun intended) and congratulations. The Post has a stellar cast reporting on TV...love it.

Re: those OC county real housewives...I wonder if a woman must buy and wear one of those dresses with a glittery diamond shaped piece in the middle in order to gain admittance to that county...they all seem to wear the same dang thing each episode.

Hank Stuever: The clothes! I love it when they go to little "shopping parties" where it's nothing but empire-seam sparkleblouses. I also love the crap that the men wear on reality shows. It's a little different than Jon Gosselin's total d-bag embrace of Ed Hardy. I love that whole megachurch vibe to their wardrobes: low-rise jeans, tight t-shirts with ginormous Griffins and crosses printed on them... This decade has to come to close. America needs a makeover. Again.


Washington, D.C.: I inadvertently called out Tom Shales for your review of Jeff Dunham last week. I apologize to Tom.

I don't understand why you so dislike him. I saw him a week ago in Baltimore and it was probably the best comedy show I've ever attended. My face hurt so much from laughing.

To preempt what I know is coming, I am an educated woman with a graduate degree and studied international affairs. His humor appeals to more than "the unwashed masses." In fact, I could forgive you for going after the Blue Collar Comedy Tour in that way.

You are making yourself seem as though you have no sense of humor. Is it something personal? I haven't watched Dunham's Comedy Central show so I will not challenge you on what you have written about it, but you took your review further to say the man is patently unfunny and anyone who laughs at his jokes is a moron. I'm starting to think you are of the caviar set and wouldn't be amused by anything. What say you?

washingtonpost.com: Jeff Dunham's laugh-free zone : Comedian's puppetry has nothing funny up its sleeve

Hank Stuever: I would say that LMAO constantly, all day long, about anything, including a lot of stuff on TV.

Here's what was interesting to me in all the blowback I got for the Jeff Dunham review, including yours. Pay attention: His fans keep writing to me to tell me he's funny. They just say that he is. They never say why, they never use examples, they never explain it. They're just mad that I think he's not funny, which somehow means I don't think anything is funny.

But why listen to me? Did anyone see Dunham on 30 Rock? I think that was pretty damn crafty of Tina Fey. The whole subtext was how oafy that sort of humor is.(Jack D'hy dragged Liz Lemon to Georgia to see "real comedy" which turned out to be Dunham and his "bubba doody" puppet or whatever it's called...)

I got tons of email from fans of Jeff Dunham. But not a one of them explained WHY they are. Like yours, it came with loads of self-justification ("I went to college...") but no joy.


Leesburg, Va.: Hank, can any of these Real Housewives shows be considered a morality play, when one of the principle tenants of such is the notion that the immoral get their comeuppance in the end?

This has never been the case in any of the RH incarnations thus far, are you suggesting the upcomming season will be different?

Difficulty: "Waaah, we're so poor I can't buy my 16 year old daughter the Land Rover she wants, and will have to get her the Range Rover instead" is not sufficient comeuppance.

Hank Stuever: What you're saying, you don't want Vicki's parachute to open.

Spoiler alert: It does.


Baltimore: Hank: As a number of posters to your story online have pointed out, the cable channel BRAVO used to be about fine arts and had no commercials. Enter NBC Universal and, oops, it's time to "monetize" the channel, which means goodbye fine arts and hello people who couldn't get jobs as carnies because they don't have enough class.

It goes to prove the adage the mid 20th century humorist Roger Price said about America: "If not everybody wants it, then nobody gets it."

Hank Stuever: I had a sentence in an earlier draft about that bitter irony -- a network meant to celebrate the finer arts becomes a world of shallowness and fashion. But you know what, there are a lot of networks that no longer identify with their original mission. Heck, remember VH1? A&E? Who would have thought A&E's greatest contribution to televisionkind would be ... "Intervention."

Oh, how I love Intervention.


Towson, Md.: Mr. Stu-ever,

I can enjoy Top Chef and Project Runway (late of Bravo) but I find myself far less interested in the "fly-on-the-wall" reality shows than the competition ones. What do you suggest would make me feel like less of a voyeur, and actually enjoy shows like Real Housewives, that I'm apparently supposed to enjoy as a gay man?

Thanks, Hank... you rock!

Hank Stuever: Hmmm. I get this -- voyeurism is not a good personality trait to cultivate.

What about anthropology? That's what it is for me.

However, let me underline: Bravo is not engaged in the purest practice of fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking. It makes business decisions the whole way, from casting, to situations, to relying on set-up events (i.e., skydiving, rooftop cocktail parties). You can tell it's hammered into shape while it's being filmed, and further hammered into a storyline in the editing bays.

And the most important thing to remember about these "everyday people" -- they are paid for their time, which leads to a sort of co-dependence between and among Bravo and its popular "stars."

Nevertheless. From an anthropological standpoint, I find it alluring. It has its limits. I had the flu in the spring and endured days "Millionaire Matchmaker" and the hallucinations mixed with the pain and fever -- wasn't good. Might not be able to watch that one again.


Vicki's Parachute: If she's the once I'm thinking of, I actually kind of like her. She might be selling over-priced McMansions, but at least she's doing something. She's not just sitting around "being rich," like most of them.

The one that galls me the most is the super gold digger one who was engaged to that elderly man with leukemia who died. It seemed like his body wasn't even cold yet when she was with I think the ex-husband of one of the women who wasn't on the show anymore. Seriously? Anything short of being smoted by meteorite is a lack of cosmic justice for that woman.

Hank Stuever: Gretchen! Guess who she's with now? Wait, don't!

Just watch Thursday night.


Albany, NY: First, congratulations on your new gig. I've liked your writing for a while and, while I am insanely jealous that I wasn't even asked to audition, I am comforted that the franchise is in good hands.

Second, your point is strong but Bravo isn't necessarily the only place you can find reality with morality: consider "Survivor," which illustrates the point that people can have success without being nice but it's hard to live with yourself; or "Nanny 911," which says that parenting is a responsibility and lax parenting leads to bad consequences. Hell, even "The Bachelor" says, "Get to know someone deeply before you marry them."

Hank Stuever: I like "Survivor" okay and I lurrrve "Amazing Race," which I consider the purest expression of the reality genre, but back to Survivor: What I don't warm to in the CBS reality ethic (Big Brother, Survivor, the rest) is the nihilistic (maybe just brutal) fixation with elimination and competition. That's not life. That's a metaphor for life, but it's not life. People aren't "eliminated," except in genocide, war, disaster, etc. I don't look to those shows for illumination into the human spirit. Human cruelty, sure.


Alexandria, VA: I was so happy to see that Tabatha's Salon Makeover is coming back! It amazes me how business owners in major debt can neglect their source of income so badly. If you were going to clone the show, what types of businesses would you choose to get the Tabatha treatment? I would start with restaurants...

Hank Stuever: I'd skip over all other sorts of establishments and send Tabatha straight to AIG! Or a big hospital! I think Tabatha's success is that she stands in for all our collective anxiety about BAD SERVICE IN AMERICA.


Jeff Dunham: I'm just happy he has a legitimate outlet for whatever makes him tick, versus trolling around in a van offering free puppet shows.

I do laugh at some of his stuff, but I've never really liked schtick comics

Hank Stuever: Haha, that's great. Thanks.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Do you think the Atlanta women realize what they are doing to keep alive that African American women are ghetto even when they have money? Or that the New Jersey HW are low class even when they have money? Flipping tables, high-schoolish fighting - do any of them realize what they are doing to themselves and the stereotypes of their peers?

Hank Stuever: These people almost never give satisfying answers to that sort of question, even when Andy and the viewers ask and ask and ask: "Aren't you mortified by seeing yourself this way? How do you feel about that?"

Invariably, the answer is solid platitude and re-affirmation of the ego: "People can say whatever, I am being me. It's all good at the end of the day. It is what it is. Am I sorry for being me? No. I am me." And that sort of good ol' 21st century American baloney.

I wonder if that's what children say now when they're hauled into principals' offices?


I'm a BRAVO Addict!: I love, love, love Bravo -- no matter the show, I find myself sucked in -- no matter how hard I try to resist! Thanks for the article. Here's my question: Jeff and Ryan on "Flipping Out." Did Ryan really do Jeff dirty, or is Jeff just being paranoid Jeff?

Hank Stuever: At brunch yesterday, it was decided by my bf, my friend Tammy and myself, that Jeff is wrong. Not because Ryan ISN'T a snake, but because Jeff was woefully under-aware of the basic workings of computers, web sites, search engines. Ryan was a step ahead of Jeff on having a design web site; Jeff was way behind (I mean, he has a tv show but no business web site until early 2009?)

And, also, don't forget: They are ex-lovers. What they were having for us on TV was probably a version of their earlier, unsatisfying break-up?

Hey, it's all hack psychology here on Bravo. We're all licensed clinicians in this world.


DC: Also Dunham profile, NYTimes Mag this Sunday.

washingtonpost.com: Jeff Dunham's Comedy for Dummies

Hank Stuever: Good. I hope I learn sumpin'.


Bravo-land: I see that Jackie Warner has a new show this year (or next year) but do you know if Workout will be back? I know they lost some sponsors because of Jackie's insensitive attitude to a cancer survior, but Bravo hasn't shunned Jackie even if the sponsors have!

Hank Stuever: No, it's something new. It's got Jackie, but it's not "Work Out" and the people at Bravo told me what it was and I am too stressed out to remember the specifics right now. It's coming.

KNow what I miss? "Blow Out" -- anyone had their hair cut by Jonathan lately? I think he sort of set a tone for Bravo's favorite type of person. They improved vastly on it by finding Jeff Lewis for "Flipping Out."


Not a question, just a thought: Sometimes I love these shows just for making me thankful that my life is plain and simple. I don't need to be on Intervention and I work for a company that doesn't need a Tabatha, and while I'll never be as "rich" as a RH, I'm not worried about my mansion (or condo) being foreclosed.

You win my prize. How many ways can I say YES, EXACTLY.

Bravo is smartly making the rest of feel better about not being rich, not being all frankenboobed out in our skimpy blouses, not being bad people.


6th and E: Hank, how did you feel about last week's RHOA reunion? I feel bad writing this, but the show was so boring I actually got mad at the women and Andy! It was ... civilized. Where was the DRAMA? Oh, and Kim's wig is still a HAM.

Hank Stuever: I feel as you felt! I should confess, I didn't get along too well with the Atlanta show. The other person in my house loves it and keeps me posted. I watch from time to time.


Storylines: Isn't it generally true that being on these reality shows involves getting orders to do or say certain things to make the show more interesting ?

Hank Stuever: Generally true on a lot of them, yes. I think all reality shows involve some producer-manipulation devices. The extreme being "The Hills" on MTV. What would guys say is the "purest" reality show?

I might say Intervention, except for the fact that by "winning" (being chosen), you get 90 days of free therapy at some very expensive rehab centers.


Olney, MD: I don't watch Bravo, although I remember when it used to carry concerts, & ballet, & the sort of thing that A&E also carried.

I do watch some reality shows. I watch Toddlers & Tiaras on TLC, and I'm aghast at what parents will do (and how much money they will spend on dresses, hair, tanning, etc) to their daughters. Platinum Brides on WE also leaves me aghast--one bride had 6 gowns, from $5000 for her shower to $50,000 for her reception gown. Rich Bride, Poor Bride, and My Fair Weddings (also on WE) are a little more reasonable, but still. . .I REFUSE to watch Bridezillas!

One show that was really great was Wedding Day on TNT. Deserving young couples were given lovely weddings with their families & friends pitching in to help make the day perfect. Needless to say, it didn't last.

Hank Stuever: Yes, "Wedding Day" sounds way too nice to get people to watch. Some of your favorites I think are more deliberately built to skeeve people out, pushing the limits on that. I think Bravo walks a more fine line, and also sticks with people long enough for them to get worse or better as the show goes on.

"Wife Swap" and other shows basically give people half an hour to look their worst, and then spits them back out into their lives.


Portland, Ore.: As a member of the Intelligent Half of this astonishing country, I am disgusted by your production of such drivel and your promotion of even greater ignorance on the part of the Ignorant Half. They -- and you -- are pathetic.

Hank Stuever: Wait, is the drivel you're talking about my article or the programming on Bravo? Because I only write about it, I don't make it.

Let's assume you mean both. In which case, good day to you, sir.


Ashamed of watching REAL...OF ATLANTA: Isn't it racist and sexist for Andy Cohen to constantly try to provoke arguments between those ladies?

Hank Stuever: Fair question. Andy, are you out there?


Annandale, Va.: Hi Hank,

It's so great to see your byline again. I was worried for a while when it seemed you were not writing for the Post as much. I still laugh about your article about Mrs.Gary Condit and her rumored lack of thumbs!

Will you be writing about TV from now on, or other topics as well?

Hank Stuever: Thanks!
Asked and answered, up top!


Las Vegas: How much do you think today's reality shows have been influenced by those in the movie "Network"? Paddy Cheyefsky predicted them in his script.

Hank Stuever: Very little. "Network" was a great movie, but we were already on the path, with things like "An American Family." Also, I'm sure that the producers at cable networks don't sit around and watch "Network" over and over to make sure they're getting it right. No, not even Glenn Beck does that.


College Park, Md.: It seems the best shows (and they are not on the new Bravo) have characters who are never "good" or "bad" but a constantly shifting mixture of the two. "The Wire," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" come to mind as all have this dichotomy in common.

Wouldn't "reality TV" be more engaging (and more "real") if they all reflected this fundamental human trait of gray morality?

Hank Stuever: Oh, but I think they do. How else can I explain the warmth I feel toward so many of Bravo's otherwise unctuously obnoxious characters? Starting with Jeff Lewis, who reminds me so much of a former friend -- all that cruelty and obsessive-compulsiveness duct-taped around what really is a true heart, I think.


"I might say Intervention, except...": Thank you for making me actually laugh out loud. I know we're digressing to a non-Bravo entity but to be a "winner" on this show, you have to be a pretty big loser to get there.

Hank Stuever: Intervention's key line, every episode: "Will you accept the gift that is being offered to you today?"

(Hint: The gift, detox plus at least 90 days at the Ruminations By the Sea (or whatever), retails at, what, $100,000?) You looked into rehab costs lately? I have, and I've decided to stick with my drug, which is Diet Pepsi, but still.


Alexandria, VA: I watch Bravo a lot for the reality shows and I can tell you that I don't watch for the morality of it. In fact, I watch for just the opposite reason: the train wreck that most of the shows are. The "Real Housewives of...." is laughable in that the women are nuts and over-the-top. They are not the kind of people you would want as friends. It's just so much fun to watch people making fools of themselves. It's like watching "I Love Lucy," only the dumbed down version.

Hank Stuever: Guess what -- by recognizing that the women are nuts and over-the-top, you are making a conclusion about life and social mores. You might as well be reading Greek mythology, Ethel!


Hank Stuever: Oh my gosh I am nearing the end of my hour with you and it looks as though I got to most everyone in here -- not bad. I have _such_ a deadline this afternoon for tomorrow's reviews. Gotta go watch television, gang. It's a hard life.

Thanks for coming by today and I hope to do this again soon.


Washington, D.C.: Don't you want to mention that you'll be at Politics and Prose on November 15th to discuss your new book, Tinsel?

Hank Stuever: I do, but is that allowed???


Housewives of Atlanta : Are the women as full of themselves as they appear to be or is it all smoke and mirrors? This season they are more over the top than last season and much less likable as individuals and as a group. I don't understand why people would put themselves up for this kind of scrutiny.

Hank Stuever: They are paid. They get book contracts. Even Kim finally auto-tuned herself to a pop single. They know where their bread is buttered -- the more drama they create, the more likely the show will continue.

Okay, now I'm really leaving! Bye!



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