I first discovered The Real Housewives of Orange County ten years ago. I had decided to combat my teenage angst by watching a lot of television. A lot. A day like any other, I found myself sitting on the sofa at my family home flipping around the channels when I finally settled on another American reality show. There was twinkling music over titles, but unlike “The Hills”, this was followed by footage of a woman in her late thirties getting botox, proclaiming “I don’t want to get old!”. This was followed by a shot of a long-limbed young woman drinking a margarita on a horse. Those high contrast and already dated titles in vibrant orange had me hooked. This was the Real Housewives of Orange County and these five women continue to play a larger part in my life than they should.
For the uninitiated, Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen created RHOC as the first in a franchise of scripted reality TV centred on rich women in gated communities in different areas of the USA. The format could feel old-hat now (Marbella is wonderful but Tahiti it ain’t) but the RHOC is the originator and has continued to do socialites, booze and catfights better than all its competitors. The appeal of the programme was initially mystifying. One by one, my mother, younger sister and grandmother (whose other TV passions were limited to Flog It! and Pointless) became addicted. Real Housewives became our bonding time, and every week we asked ourselves why.
In order to try and unravel my addiction to this show, it seems to come down to deciding whether I am a snob, or simply a voyeur. Every season of twenty-odd episodes seems pretty similar, centring around bizarrely themed parties (it turns out you can theme a party around being an Aries) and the fact that these women appear to get an opportunity to wear a full-length ball gown once every three weeks, rather than my aspirational target of once every three years. On top of this, the producers throw in one trip to an exotic destination, which usually provokes an incident based on some insult someone has thrown accidentally on-purpose at another. No expense is spared on these trips, and the opulence of one such sojourn to Bali genuinely made me green with envy.
But it is exactly those trips, those genuinely once-in-a-lifetime trips, that make me wait for the next week’s episode with baited breath. Or rather, it is the way the women act on them. I consider myself an educated woman; perhaps my addiction to the show comes from the superiority felt when watching how crassly these women behave whilst in these dream destinations. “I’d never do that,” I’d snicker, from the comfy chair in my sitting room. Eagle-eyed viewers like myself will also notice that the women are rarely filmed without a massive glass of wine in hand, no matter the time of day, or will spot the same jewellery being worn by different “housewives” in pieces to camera. “Sometimes I drink too much and borrow my friend’s clothes, but don’t live in CALIFORNIA!”, I’d scoff into my fifth KitKat of the half hour.
However, the last season on British TV provoked a different emotion in me: pity. Here, the main controversy was based around RHOC’s only original cast member, Vicki Gunvalson, and her relationship with Brooks, a shifty “Southern Gentleman” who by all accounts appeared to have faked having cancer and alienated Vicki her from all her loved ones. Whether it was just how the show was edited, her increasing denial of her partner’s unscrupulous, immoral and possibly illegal behaviour made her appear to be a textbook victim of gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse. Even the usually unflappable Andy Cohen, who says that he is in a “business relationship” with these women and that “they know what they’re doing”, looked uncomfortable.
In that same season, another woman is married to a man who spends most of his time over 1500 miles away, whilst she is trying to create a relationship with a teenage stepdaughter who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her. Another spends each episode turning to medicine, mostly alternative and expensive, in a seemingly endless quest to try and accept her husband’s infidelity.
These are legitimately upsetting issues, and the show does not shy away from them. However, these lows do serve as a way to humanise the women, and it does not feel too cynical to say that genuine emotional drama is brought to the forefront to deflect away from the constant vanity and extravagance of the lives these women otherwise lead. Envy and disdain for characters will hook a viewer, but it’s the pathos of these women that keeps me watching week after week. If it weren’t for these lows, I would be hard-pushed to watch someone complain about how long it is taking to build their 20,000 square foot “chateau” for twenty minutes.
The final aspect of RHOC that provoked a ten-year love affair can be traced back to the very first time I watched it. At the end of the titles, each of the “housewives” is standing in a semicircle, posing as seductively as possible whilst holding an orange (Orange County, remember) in their outstretched hand. These siren-esque poses with soft fruit are laughable, but the women know this and openly discuss the “politics” of who is placed in the centre. There is a feeling of self-parody, something extremely uncommon in American TV, that comes directly from the women’s own awareness that they have an image to keep up, and that this image is anything but real.
But, then again, neither my sister nor I wanted real at the age of 14, worrying about GCSE options. My mother didn’t want it after working and bringing up three children and my grandmother didn’t want it after battling through another day with terminal heart failure. Breast implants, break ups and braving yet another Bunco party is how I want to spend my evenings on the sofa. Reality can be challenging: I don’t want my reality TV to be too.