The Real Housewives, Bravo’s reality TV franchise that follows the lives of affluent women and their families in cities around the country, is one of the richest cultural texts of the 2010s. Fans have followed the tentpole’s well-to-do characters for more than a decade as they’ve welcomed babies into the world, tried to get away with fake cancer scams, and been sent to prison for fraud. Every possible facet of social and psychological dysfunction of the upper classes is on display, with each city and cast adding its own regional quirks.
That’s why it can be tough to find a place to break into the almost 15-year-old franchise. My preferred method is usually to just shove a friend in front of whichever episode is currently playing, since there’s almost always one airing on Bravo, and each episode has so much callback footage and “previously” padding that no viewer will ever be truly lost. A nice trick of reality storytelling is its ability to easily weave in past exposition tape so anybody can keep up, even if you’ve changed channels halfway through.
Still, if you really want to experience the Real Housewives at the height of its powers, you’ll need a more precise entry point. The Real Housewives of Orange County may be the first series in the franchise, but as when making pancakes, the attempts that follow are always better, so we’re heading east. Potomac and Atlanta are strong contenders, but it’s that second pancake, The Real Housewives of New York City, that is generally considered the franchise at its best. And that’s largely thanks to its mascot, Bethenny Frankel, a savvy striver with an instinct for what makes good television. Frankel swiftly became the most successful woman on the franchise, thanks to founding her Skinnygirl brand, and though she left the series in Season 3, her return in Season 7 ushered in a new era.
Out of that new era comes Season 8’s “December: Berkshires County,” a near-bottle episode at Dorinda Medley’s house in the Berkshires that takes us through the major Stations of the Housewife, including fights, laughs, inadvertent catchphrases, and vaginal rejuvenations. These women are so good at generating drama this episode takes place over the course of a few hours, instead of the usual days or weeks covered at a time, opening in the midst of a fight between Frankel and Luann de Lesseps, also known as the Countess. Often, it’s not what the housewives fight about, but how they fight, which is what gives Bethenny her star power. Here, she’s dressing down Luann for claiming to have helped Bethenny with the idea for Skinnygirl, but the fight is about more than that. It’s about Luann’s willingness to change with the winds for a personal advantage, something that has long influenced her relationships with these women.
While all of this chaos is unfolding, Jules Wainstein, a one-season wife and a personal favorite, has an elderly father with pneumonia who may be close to passing. At one point she steps out to field a call about it, and Luann follows her outside so she can vent about what just happened. The scene is one of the best works of Bravo because it highlights the absurd myopia of the cast as they talk past each other about death and sluttiness.
If this show were only fights, it wouldn’t be half as good. It’s the splashes of levity that remind us that the housewives can just have a good time, like Sonja Morgan, the quintessential Upper East Side kook, off on her own getting a vaginal touchup while the others squabble. Back at the house, hostess Dorinda spouts off her catchphrase, “I made it nice,” because the other women are ruining her weekend. Luann consults Ramona, a woman who has the interpersonal instincts of a weed, on how to mend things with the other women, and they craft the worst PR apology texts imaginable. But even after the texts are sent, Luann just can’t let it go, ranting to Dorinda about Bethenny just as Bethenny walks back in the room, ready for another round.
After watching these women yell at one another, escape to their rooms to gossip about the yelling, and then regroup to yell again, it might seem like a lot of nothing just happened. But that’s so much of why I return to this show. Unlike reality shows like 90 Day Fiancé, the stakes of these petty feuds are so low that the viewer can relax and enjoy without feeling guilty, swapping allegiances just as swiftly as any woman on screen. Sit back and enjoy your seat at the modern colosseum.