I've Spent The Pandemic Watching The Entire “Real Housewives” Empire. I Will Never Be The Same.

From the bonkers Denise Richards takedown on Beverly Hills to Monique Samuels and Candiace Dillard’s violent feud on Potomac, the Housewives franchise has kept me going during the pandemic — and thank god for that.

Before the pandemic, I’d never been much of a reality TV person. I don’t think I avoided it because I thought I was too good for it or anything — I love trash!! — but because I didn’t know where to even begin. There’s just so much of it. The Real Housewives universe is an empire made up of hundreds of episodes across dozens of cities and seasons. I feel like I have a good sense of my tastes and preferences when it comes to sitcoms and dramas and other fictionalized television, but reality TV is a universe unto itself.

Of course this seems silly to me now — the energy and stakes required to simply pick a show, put it on, and see what I feel about it could not possibly be lower — but I’m somewhat of a perfectionist even when it comes to my TV watching habits. Perhaps I already knew that I couldn’t and wouldn’t be a casual Housewives consumer; that once I got on this train there’d be no debarking anytime soon — if ever. (That became clear to me after watching Bethenny Frankel yell “Go to sleep! GO TO SLEEP!!!!” at Kelly Killoren Bensimon on Scary Island.) If I was going to do this, I was gonna commit. I was going to do it right.

Earlier this year, I dabbled in some dating shows, like Love Island and Married at First Sight, which I loved until I hit a wall and they just started to depress me. (Dating shows, after all, are ultimately about the desperate loneliness of the human condition.) A few friends of mine, including my colleague Alessa, one of the world’s preeminent Housewives scholars, told me that no other franchise (reality TV or otherwise) compares when it comes to drama, hilarity, humiliation, and tragedy. And suddenly, being trapped in the house for months on end offered me the opportunity to take on a new kind of commitment.

And boy, have I committed. I’ve since burned through nearly all of the New York series and a good chunk of Atlanta, caught up on Beverly Hills just in time to see it go down the tubes by this season’s reunion, and now the prospect of a new episode of Real Housewives of Potomac on Sunday nights has given me reason to keep on keeping on throughout this hellish pandemic.

The prospect of a new episode of Real Housewives of Potomac on Sunday nights has given me reason to keep on keeping on throughout this hellish pandemic.

Some of my most trusted Housewivesheads told me that Potomac is slow going at first, but it’s become the best of the best of the franchise. Now, having torn through the previous four seasons and literally living for the fifth, currently airing, I’d go even further and say that this is some of the best television, reality or otherwise, I’ve ever seen. (And honey, I have seen a lot of television.)

Bravo has so far emerged triumphant during the pandemic, which has shut down IRL production on shows and movies in Hollywood and across the country. The network was lucky enough to start off our nationwide lockdown with full seasons of some of their most passionately watched shows already in the can, including The Real Housewives of New York, Atlanta, and my crown jewel, Potomac; Housewivesheads rejoiced. The pandemic only caught up to the Wives by the time for reunions, which for Atlanta, Beverly Hills, and other Bravo shows took place over Zoom.

According to my former colleague (and fellow Housewiveshead) Kate Aurthur, at Variety, the network’s ability to keep up seamless episode releases has resulted in record-high ratings among the coveted 18–49 and 25–54 demographic. For that group in primetime, Bravo is No. 2 overall, behind only TLC. The major Denise Richards drama is this year’s top-rated cable program on Wednesdays.

Potomac isn’t doing as hot — despite this season’s top-tier drama, the series has been struggling to top 1 million live viewers after the season’s premiere. Which is honestly a little outrageous to me. If you’re mourning the ends of Beverly Hills or New York — or if you’re brand new to the Housewives universe — I’m here to tell you why you should start bingeing Potomac, like yesterday.

“Reality television has always been about conflict and growth,” Aurthur points out in her piece on Bravo’s workings during the pandemic. “Casting people who make good TV, but aren’t too far over the ineffable line between being entertaining and being awful has always been difficult — never more so than today.”

Potomac is a newer installment of the Housewives franchise, having premiered in 2016 on Bravo. The series follows the lives of women living in Potomac, Maryland, an area of the country that definitely doesn’t have the built-in name recognition of places like New York or Atlanta. It seems like such a random choice because it’s actually Bravo’s second attempt to build a series around the Washington, DC, area; The Real Housewives of D.C., which aired in 2010, was canceled after one season. The first season of Potomac averaged just over 2 million viewers, making it the most-watched first season of the franchise since Beverly Hills in 2010.

Like Atlanta, the Potomac cast is made up entirely of Black women, which adds rich racial and cultural dimensions to the usual Housewives themes of money, class, mommy issues, mental health, and marital woes. The current cast is made up of Ashley Darby and Candiace Dillard, both former beauty pageant queens; Karen Huger, the self-proclaimed “grand dame” of Potomac; Gizelle Bryant, a socialite and ex-wife of a megachurch pastor; Robyn Dixon, an entrepreneur who, like Gizelle, is also currently dating her ex-husband; newcomer Wendy Osefo, a professor and political analyst; and Monique Samuels, who’s just spent about $200,000 trying to get her mommy blog/podcast empire off the ground.

One of the first season’s recurring conversations centers around cast member Katie Rost, who’s biracial and identifies as such, and whether or not she also considers herself Black. Two of the other cast members, Gizelle and Robyn, are lighter-skinned than Katie (the Green-Eyed Bandits, they’re eventually dubbed) and take offense when Katie suggests they’re probably multiracial as well. During one fight, Katie tells Robyn she should get her ancestry checked out, and Robyn responds with bafflement, saying that she has no direct white ancestors.

In a later season (Katie was fired after the first), Robyn revealed that she’d taken a DNA test that told her she was 59% European. She posted on Instagram at the time that “most African Americans will have some percentage of European ancestry” due to the slave trade, but “now that I know that I am 59% European, am I all of a sudden going to consider myself ‘mixed’ or ‘biracial’??? HELL NO!!! I was raised in a proud black family and will always be a proud black woman!!!” Katie, in response, tweeted that she was “pissed off” she didn’t have an opportunity to address the new revelations on the show, and that Robyn had “shamed me and my children season 1 for being mixed. It hurt me! It's a colorism issue left unresolved.”

An “issue left unresolved” is a good way to describe many of the Housewives dramas, which so often go deeper than the surface-level petty bullshit to reveal profound, and profoundly human, anxieties about identity and belonging. These ladies are messy, and it’s fun, of course, to delight in the messiness, but watching them contend with complicated questions about everything from race to consent to emotional abuse actually makes Housewives a fascinating and even quite challenging watch. Maybe viewers without psychosexual issues of their own can binge these shows purely for lighthearted entertainment purposes, but for me (and, I’d wager, most of its most ardent fans) the pleasures afforded from a deliciously delivered one-liner pushes right up against the pains of watching hours’ and hours’ worth of someone’s deepest insecurities be laid bare for a national audience. One minute you’re laughing at somebody’s cruel bit of shade; the next you’re feeling devastated for its victim, who, all her privileges aside, is clearly just as messed up and broken as the rest of us.

The Housewives dramas so often go deeper than the surface-level petty bullshit to reveal profound, and profoundly human, anxieties about identity and belonging.

This formula — the pleasures and the pains — works best when you actually have reason to root for these women. Or at least for some of them, some of the time.

For me, and for a lot of other Beverly Hills fans, what was once one of the best series of the franchise started to sour when pretty much everyone on the cast morphed into the worst version of themselves. After the recent departure of queen of reality TV and “original mean girl” Lisa Vanderpump, who claims she’d been unjustly ostracized by a bunch of “bitches,” it seems as though Kyle Richards had taken her place in the just-concluded 10th season. Kyle, an OG Housewife, earned public favor early on for being a more down-to-earth version of her fellow cast members. She’s always been portrayed as having a good relationship with her four daughters and her husband, Mauricio Umansky, ranked one of the franchise’s hottest Househusbands. You know, just a cool, regular mom!

She’s also grown far richer, thanks in part to Mauricio’s real estate business. And whether she’s just gotten too big for her britches after surviving 10 seasons relatively unscathed, or her incredible wealth has insulated her from any remotely relatable issues — or some combination of the two — even longtime Kyle apologists have grown tired of her this season.

She and other Wives I’ve also liked more often than I’ve disliked them (including the utterly shameless Lisa Rinna, a soap star and QVC big-timer, and looks-turner/fledgling pop star Erika Girardi) annoyed and disappointed me in their seasonlong vendetta against newcomer Denise Richards, who was accused by former cast member Brandi Glanville (perhaps the biggest, brattiest mess in Housewives herstory) of sleeping with her. The whole torrid affair stank of gay panic, and even season highlights like seeing Denise’s incredibly hunky husband Aaron Phypers talking about electromagnetic frequencies and his theories about alternative methods to cure cancer — for which he and Denise think they’re being followed by vindictive competitors — couldn’t make up for a season that devolved into an everybody-against-Denise brawl in which her refusal to admit to her affair with Brandi somehow made her completely uncredible as a friend, even to her longtime buddy Lisa Rinna. (Personally the cancer stuff is more of a credibility issue, for me.)

Having trouble keeping up here? I know it’s a lot — but trust me, just dive in and you’ll pick it all up right quick.

In Potomac, alternatively, I can find multiple things to like about every woman — even Ashley Darby, whose defenses of her husband Michael season after season, despite his increasingly erratic, creepy, and even allegedly abusive behavior, has made her harder and harder to root for. In Season 4, Michael was accused of sexual assault by a camera operator, who alleged that Michael grabbed his butt during production. In the production footage, Michael walks by, giggling and saying “Hey, man,” and the camera operator can be heard saying: “Please don’t do that.” Michael apologizes. After the footage surfaced, Michael maintained that he’d just accidentally bumped the man and that was all. But there were allegations it wasn’t even the first time. Making everything worse: Michael and Ashley, have a brand-new baby boy named Dean.

This is dark stuff. But Bravo knows well enough to inject some levity around the drama. This season, when we’re reunited with Potomac Housewife Monique, she has a new pet parrot she’s named T’Challa. As my friend Alessa put it, the parrot would seem like a dumb stunt from any other Housewife, but with Monique it feels so bizarrely genuine that it just works. Just as she’d potty-trained her infants at super early ages, Monique has taught T’Challa to use a literal toilet, and walks around with him on her shoulder with a leash. The other women are all terrified of him, and mere minutes after everyone’s arrived for the girls getaway at Monique’s lake house, he flies into new Housewife Wendy’s face — her sheer terror, and the expert editing letting us make the most of the moment, is one of dozens of top-tier iconic Housewives moments this season.

Speaking of editing, somebody give the Potomac crew an Emmy. This season opens on a first aid kit surrounded by broken glass, followed by the disembodied voices of green-eyed bandit Gizelle and grand dame Karen talking in hushed tones: “Never thought as a Black woman, we’d be right here. We can’t brush this under the rug,” and “We hold ourselves above the stereotype, and in five minutes, she took it away.” Then we jump back in time, seven weeks earlier. Oh my god???? By the end of Season 4, you could tell that these ladies were on the verge of a full-on physical showdown. They’d come close before, like when Monique threatened to behead Robyn with an umbrella, but we’re given reason to believe with this opener that real violence is a-brewin’. And it’s the kind of violence that denigrates all of Black womanhood? Some of Potomac’s most interesting moments, including last night’s explosive episode with Monique and Candiace finally coming to physical blows, involve their engagement of respectability politics, like with Candiace’s oft-repeated line from when some of the women were fighting loudly in a hotel lobby: “Guys! The white people are watching!”

Now that we’re about halfway through the season, every episode is as good as the last: relationship drama for pretty much every cast member; conversations about Black women’s image and what it means to give into stereotypes of “ghetto-ass hood bitches”; accusations of “mom shaming” and what it means to be a good mother.

The drama is so good because so much of it is so petty and so stupid, yes, but you’re also watching women with various emotional issues and traumas trying to excise themselves of their demons while other women’s demons are threatening to raise their ugly heads at any moment. What I love about Housewives is that during any given tiff or full-blown fight, there’s just so much to analyze and unpack: to what extent someone’s trying to address real grievances; how much past infractions by the same person should count against them in the present and future before they run out of second chances; when someone’s hardships might explain or partly excuse their behavior, or when they’re just using their own shit as excuses to continue harassing everybody else.

For some viewers, watching Housewives is “escapist TV at the highest level,” as Amy Amatangelo put it in her Hollywood Reporter review of Potomac’s first season. “You can watch with the comfort that you would never behave this way and delight in all the ridiculous shenanigans. And I think we’re all in on the joke that it’s highly unlikely that any of this is actually real.”

But for me — and for my friends and fellow critics who take Housewives deadly seriously — taking comfort in our distance from these women isn’t a factor at all; rather, what’s so much fun about Potomac, as well as other Housewives series at their best, is finding the ways in which their ridiculous, petty, hilarious, and even harmful behavior relates to our own lives and relationships. Yes, plenty about it is contrived for production purposes — I love watching, each and every season, when everybody’s forced to go on a girls trip despite whoever’s hardcore feuding at the time. The women themselves are also attempting to self-mythologize, build their brands, and come across to the public as a certain kind of woman — as a successful entrepreneur, or as a good wife or mom.

But aren’t we all? Whenever we post on social media — hell, whenever we leave our houses — we’re attempting, with our clothes and our words and the people with whom we surround ourselves, to telegraph to the world a certain image of who we think we are, or who we want to be. Sure, sometimes the Housewives seem totally delusional — but haven’t you? Haven’t people you love, or once loved? Some of the most poignant and painful moments across the series are about estranged relationships with family members, from Kenya on Atlanta who’d been abandoned by her mother as a baby, to Ashley on Potomac who tried to reunite with her father only to have him shut the door in her face. People, real people, behave badly all the time. We fuck up and we hurt each other, and we pick stupid fights, and we make regrettable mistakes, and we say things we wish we had never, ever said. Maybe we don’t do it with a bunch of disposable income, and maybe our indiscretions aren’t edited into certain narrative arcs and displayed on national television, but of course we behave ridiculously, even — especially — when we believe wholeheartedly that we’re in the right.

I can’t wait to watch the rest of Potomac, and not only because I want to find out who deals which blows to whom, or because Karen and Gizelle make me laugh aloud multiple times an episode. I care about these women! I want to know what becomes of Robyn and Juan’s potentially resuscitated marriage; I want to know whether Karen will be able to reconcile her incredibly grand image of herself with the sad, scared person she becomes when she’s eight Fireball shots deep; I want to know whether Ashley, with baby Dean and another baby on the way (Jesus Christ), might be able to work on her daddy issues enough to cut Michael out for good. It’s so easy to judge them for the mistakes they make, from the small to the truly disastrous — and trust me, I do plenty of judging. It’s only human.

But so is compassion. I find it an endlessly fascinating exercise to ask myself why someone or something on Housewives is annoying me so much — is it perhaps because I see a little bit of myself in them? Or a little bit of someone in my life who’s hurt me beyond repair? Sometimes after a particularly good episode, especially if I’m a joint deep, I can really galaxy-brain my way into oblivion: The Housewives all want to be loved as they are, but none of them really knows who they are, or who each other is, because both the Self and the Other are each fundamentally unknowable! And we, the viewer, like to think we know who they all are, but we don’t know jack shit either — about them or about ourselves. Or really anything.

Anyway. Watch Potomac — and New York, and Atlanta, and Beverly Hills. Personally I’m looking forward to starting The O.C., New Jersey, and Dallas — and, in just a few short weeks, the newly announced Salt Lake City. You cannot go wrong, tbh. Happy viewing!!! ●

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