“Reality-television fans have high standards for artifice”

Reality-television fans have high standards for artifice, which needs to seem both believable and intricately produced, bloody and plastic. This was the initial appeal of the “Housewives” franchise, which will swan to its fifteenth anniversary in March. When the inaugural series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” premièred, in 2006, audiences were titillated by this monster picture of female arrogance, wounded glamour, and social betrayal, and, moreover, by the participants’ evident awareness of the bit. In the years that followed, the franchise expanded to encompass nine more cities, and to spawn several spinoffs. “Housewives” has become an institution of network reality television; it is still beloved—though that love is mainly expressed, by devotees, through biting critique—but its trusted formula, with rare exceptions, lulls. The drink will be thrown, the gossip will be launched, the husband will be divorced. The “artsy” label, in the current reality-TV landscape, is more likely to be lavished on the quiescent experiment of “Terrace House”; the avant-garde, queer-friendly portraits of “Dating Around”; or the social-commentary humiliation of “90-Day Fiancé.” “Housewives” is now comfort TV, which is a compliment and a dig.

Doreen St. Félix, “Tasteless”, The New Yorker (15 & 22 February 2021), 92.