I’m Real

Reality television goes above-and-beyond to convince the viewers that it’s “real” and “authentic”; but it’s kind of weird to me to think that people can actually go about their day-to-day lives with a camera crew following them, constantly having to set up and break down, without that having some sort of impact on their behavior and relationships with each other. In the case of the Real Housewives shows, obviously they aren’t being followed 24/7 the way The Real World always claimed they did with their casts…which was exposed for bullshit to me when MTV was filming The Real World: New Orleans and they lived in the Bellefort mansion on St. Charles Avenue–essentially in my neighborhood. Periodically I would see a group of them–young people I assumed were the cast–walking around in the neighborhood with a camera crew following them on their way to someplace they were going to film…which meant that obviously they weren’t being filmed 24/7 as the camera men were not filming them as they walked. That breaking of the fourth wall for me was kind of a spoiler in some ways (I never really spent a great deal of thought on the show or how it was made; if I had spent a minute or two thinking about it rather than just blindly accepting what I was told I would have realized how ludicrous the 24/7 filming thing they claimed actually was–but I never cared enough to question anything). After that fourth wall was broken for me, I wasn’t as into The Real World as I had been previously; plus, the longer the show went on, the more it became focused on blackout drinking, sex, and violence–none of which I particularly wanted to watch, really.

When Bravo–which used to be a more higher-minded channel showing Inside the Actor’s Studio as well as syndicated repeats of Law and Order and The West Wing–chose to capitalize on the success of their first forays into reality television with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the great reality competition shows Project Runway (we were obsessed with it) and Top Chef by going for something a little more Real World-ish with The Real Housewives of Orange County, I wasn’t particularly interested. As Sonja Morgan was told by Bethenny Frankel in one memorable encounter on the New York franchise, “it’s a cheater brand”–something branded similarly to something vastly more successful as an attempt to piggy-back on that success; in this case, they were copying ABC’s breakout hit Desperate Housewives AND The OC. The ubiquitous previews–run constantly during the syndicated repeats we watched as well as the competition programs–did nothing to inspire me to want to watch even a little bit. The show was successful enough to spawn another franchise in New York, and then another in Atlanta. These shows became part of the public consciousness, really; you couldn’t get away from them, particularly if you watched anything else on Bravo–you began to learn what some of the women’s names were; began to know who was friends with whom and who couldn’t stand who; who was fighting with who and why and so on. Sometimes on weekends while Paul slept on the couch and I sat in my chair reading a book or revising something I was working on, I would just put the channel on Bravo because they always ran marathons on the weekends–whether it was The West Wing, Law and Order, Project Runway or a Housewives franchise–primarily because I always need some sort of noise in the background whenever I do anything. Occasionally Paul would wake up and watch for a few minutes, or I would look up and watch for a while, slowly figuring out what was actually going on with the show, but not interested enough to watch as they aired or become heavily involved. Paul and I actually started watching Atlanta when it started airing–we were drawn in by previews featuring NeNe Leakes, who was hilarious–but I wasn’t very comfortable with it, to be honest; my liberal white guilt made me wonder whether this was a kind of “look at the how funny and weird Black women are!” kind of show. I also didn’t like that the first show to feature Black women had a token white woman on it–none of the other shows with all white casts ever added a minority to the mix; why couldn’t Black women have a show that was all about Black women without needing a white woman to round out the cast? And I was definitely not a fan of Kim Zolciak, so we gradually stopped watching regularly; after all, there was always a marathon going to be aired at some point on a weekend.

I also gave Beverly Hills a whirl when it first aired, primarily because I remembered Kim Richards from her days as a child actress and wanted to see her as an adult. Seeing what she’d become was a bit of a shock, but I watched that entire first season as it aired in amazement, falling in love with Lisa Vanderpump (as so many did) and kind of liking Camille Grammer. She was a bit unfiltered and came across as a very spoiled, privileged white woman…but she was fun to watch and I couldn’t stand Kyle Richards, who was her primary antagonist. But I stopped watching when the show became too dark in the second season, dealing with spousal abuse of one of the cast-members and her husband’s eventual suicide.

A little too real, frankly.

But some friends got me to start watching New York again as it aired in a later season, and this time, I embraced the lunacy and the madness, seeing it for what it was: entertainment. Sure, there was an element of people being rewarded for behaving badly, and whether the madness I was watching was authentic and real, filmed as it occurred, or was “produced” really didn’t matter. I didn’t need to see how the cheese was made, nor did I care; but as I started watching the others so I could talk about them with my friends, dissecting characters and behaviors, I began to realize that these shows were the nighttime soaps of this new age; addictive shows about people with money behaving badly that we talked about (I used to watch Dynasty with a huge group of friends, every Wednesday night: Bong Hits with the Carringtons and the Colbys). Each new edition/franchise of the show was uniquely different from the others; some I never got into (DC, Miami) and others I watched religiously (New York, Atlanta, Beverly Hills), and others I’d keep up with generally (Orange County, Potomac)–my viewing habits for the ones I didn’t watch religiously eventually evolved into simply watching the reunions–which essentially summed up the highs and lows of the season without all the filler.

But I also became interested in watching from a sociological point of view as well; it wasn’t just entertainment, the shows actually provided all kinds of looks into things like group dynamics, how some minor understanding could become blown completely out of proportion, how betrayals of trust are difficult to come back from with a friend, and watching how these women’s evolution was potentially altered, even contaminated, by exposure on camera to a wide audience. Success on the shows might lead to success away from the cameras, but primarily in business more than anything else; these shows were not a jumping off-point into any kind of scripted acting, other than stunt casting on Broadway in shows very late in their run (see: NeNe Leakes, Cinderella; Erika Jayne, Chicago). Bethenny Frankel, seen as the primary success story to arise from the shows (I’ve never cared for her, to be honest), has never managed to translate her popularity as a Housewife into anything successful that wasn’t linked, in some ways, to her original show (her talk show failed, her ripoff of The Apprentice for HBO also failed); and like Trump, her business is really now just licensing the “Skinnygirl” label to other companies marketing products since she sold the alcohol company for a lot of money to Jim Beam years ago.

This interest eventually, as always, evolved into fiction for me. I had always been interested in writing a Scotty book rooted in a season of a Real World-type show filming here; that gradually evolved into my own version of the Housewives shows, The Grande Dames. That eventually worked its way into Royal Street Reveillon, which might be one of my personal favorite Scotty books. I still do watch New York, although I’ve had to back away from Beverly Hills because I cannot stand to see alleged criminal conspirator and ruthless narcissist Erika Girardi on my television; I feel that giving them that extra streaming view somehow condones the fact they didn’t fire her and continue to give her a platform to spin her lies and evade prosecution and restitution.

So, I was very interested when I saw this book talked about on one of the Facebook fan pages I belong to:

As a reward for the procedure the other day, I decided to download this, and in my exhausted state Thursday evening, I started reading it on my Kindle.

If you’re a fan of the shows, you will definitely enjoy this. Essentially, it’s an oral history, with Quinn interviewing not only actual Housewives but also members of production and people from the network about the casts, things that happened on the show, and the controversies. It’s fascinating; production and the network people are always very quick to justify their own questionable behavior in the actions they did or did not take when something bad was happening in front of the cameras (which was to be expected). What was truly interesting to me was the women themselves, and their commentary on their castmates, and the absolute zero fucks they give about lifting the curtain and letting us all see how the sausage was made. What’s particularly weird, though, is you do find yourself wondering–just as you do when you watch the shows–how much of it is real and how much of it is the women either covering their own asses or staying in “character” from the shows; Sherée Whitfield makes absolutely no bones about how much she loathes NeNe Leakes…and actually, nobody spoken to from the Atlanta cast, past or present, says anything nice about her other than she makes good TV. (Likewise, New Jersey castmates are very quick to point out that cast-mates Teresa and Melissa, sisters-in-law, still very much hate each other despite the “reconciliation” for the cameras.)

But again, are they just playing a part still, or are their answers authentic? It’s hard to say. I do think some of the former cast members who are bitter about their experiences (looking at you, Carole Radziwell and Heather Thomsen) are being honest, since they have nothing to lose; the ones who are still on their shows perhaps not so much. (Props to Teresa Guidice, too; she literally is who she appears to be, both on television and in this book–so either she’s very good at playing “Teresa” to the point of staying in character all the time, or she basically is that person. I’m not sure she’s a good enough actress to pull off a performance, though.)

Reading the book was a lot of fun, though, and I think if you are a fan of these shows, you’ll also enjoy it. I greatly enjoyed reading it, and it also reads, as oral histories tend to do, very quickly. Does it actually give the reader an accurate view behind the scenes, or any insight into who these women really are off-camera and in their own lives? I don’t know, and that, I guess, is part of the fun; it’s a very good extension of the shows for fans.

I have recently begun to wonder about whether I should continue to watch these shows. I go back and forth between embracing the enjoyment I get from watching (there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure; we should never feel guilty about finding joy in anything in life; one of the producers even says towards the beginning, that guilty pleasure thing pisses me off because it’s always directed at things women enjoy–a man can sit in front of the television all day watching football yet no one calls the NFL a “guilty pleasure”–which is a very good fucking point) and wondering if I am part of a system that glorifies and rewards bad behavior. do the shows demean women, make them look bad and infantile and childish?

Reading this book gave me no answers other than I should continue to enjoy what I enjoy without spending a lot of time questioning or over-analyzing both myself and my motivations. I also don’t care if people judge me for anything I get enjoyment from; after all, I get judged by people for my sexuality and I really don’t give two shits about the people who do that, either.

But if you don’t watch the shows, I wouldn’t suggest or recommend you read this book; none of it will make any sense to you once they start talking about what happened during the seasons and the conflicts/relationships between the women.

Keep on Loving You

My friend Laura often says there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure; that we should embrace anything and everything that provides us with entertainment because life is so damned fucking hard that we such take our joys and pleasures wherever we can find them and to hell with feeling guilt about any of it. It’s a wonderful theory that I’ve tried to adapt, but yet….somehow my reading and viewing choices inevitably make me feel guilty about some of them. I mean, when most writers-to-be were reading Faulkner and Hemingway and Barry Hannah and that other one–ah, yes, Raymond Carver–with an eye to Writing The Great American Novel, I was reading Harold Robbins and James Michener and Sidney Sheldon and any number of “trashy” novels.

My tastes have always skewed low, I’m afraid.

Take, for example, the Real Housewives shows.

Yet…something has changed.

I used to watch all the shows religiously, but finally I hated Teresa Guidice so much–and the fact that she kept her job after going to jail–pushed me away from watching New Jersey. I tired of Nene Leakes and her antics, so put Atlanta on the back burner; never watched Dallas or started Salt Lake City, and while I enjoyed Potomac, never could seem to remind myself to watch. I had eventually gotten to the point where I was only watching two: New York and Beverly Hills, but these current seasons of each have me wondering why do I still bother?

I bailed on the previous season of Beverly Hills before it finished–I had little to no interest in watching Brandi Glanville’s desperate attempt to gain relevance and get back on the show by slandering Denise Richards, and watching the rest of the cast gleefully torturing Ms. Richards over something that could have actually affected her custody struggle with her insane ex, Charlie Sheen was really not the kind of trash television I enjoy watching. I also really started hating Lisa Rinna, whom I’d always enjoyed before, to the point where all I want to do when I see her face is change the channel–let alone how grating the sound of her voice has become.

And while I did watch New York all the way to its bitter end last season, I found myself not really caring about their return this season, and yes, it took me awhile to get interested in even giving them another shot. I was actually of the mindset that, with all the things going on in the world and the pandemic and all, giving these women any more of my time was a waste, and have begun to think that the entire idea of these shows has run its course. In a time where a pandemic is killing people, anti-vaxxer ignorance is making things worse, and the country is being ripped apart over a significant part of the nation’s inability to look beyond themselves and have empathy for people being systemically oppressed…it’s hard to shut that reality off and enjoy the “reality” of spoiled, privileged women wasting their lives arguing over petty bullshit–particularly ones that are so self-absorbed to such a high level of narcissism that it really begs, if not for them to be institutionalized, but at the very least kept away from other human beings for the protection of society as a whole.

And that bothers me. Why has my opinion about these shows changed so dramatically? Is it the pandemic and all the racial reckoning we’ve been dealing with as a country and as a society? Or have I simply outgrown them?

It’s also occurred to me since I wrote about them in a (very thinly) veiled way in my last Scotty book–renaming the series The Grande Dames–that I can really no longer justify watching anymore. I definitely try to subscribe to Laura’s mentality about guilty pleasures, but as I have watched this season’s episodes of both shows, I find myself bored and not enjoying them so much. All shows tend to have a natural tendency to become less interesting the longer they run, and reality shows are no different from their scripted brothers and sisters. These shows are rather like soaps–that comparison has been made before by a lot of television and cultural critics (including the horrible Camille Paglia, which proves the old adage about stopped clocks)–which is why soaps regularly wrote characters out and brought in new ones to try to stay relevant and fresh. The night time soaps eventually ran out of steam–popular characters couldn’t be let go, and how do you keep the villains and heroes fresh when they continually have to make the same mistakes, over and over again, as the stories eventually end up repeating themselves?

I do think that’s what is happening, in my mind, with the Real Housewives…they’ve run their course, the long-running characters’ awful behavior and mistakes get repeated, over and over again, with every new cast member, and it’s hard to watch people behaving the same way for decades and never really learning and growing from the experiences. I guess that isn’t why people watch these shows–for character growth and development–the key to their popularity is how awful the women actually are, and how lacking in self-awareness…but having spent most of my adulthood shedding toxic people from my life as soon they make their toxicity known, it’s weird to watch shows for years about people who are primarily toxic at their core, with few, if any, redeeming qualities. But a show about a bunch of lovely women with money who are decent and do good things with their money wouldn’t be interesting to watch, either. It’s the conflict we watch for, I suppose, and the bad behavior, and deciding who’s right and who’s wrong and being entertained. And sometimes these shows are painful to watch as they go to really dark places occasionally–as I was watching New York yesterday, I found myself thinking about one character–who is clearly in a very bad place and when she drinks too much she blacks out and her behavior is horrifying–and wondering why no one in production, or no one else in the cast, is stepping up and trying to get her the help she so obviously needs?

But this out-of-control behavior drives ratings, I suppose, and that leads to the next question, is it okay to watch these women, who hunger for fame and attention, debase themselves and allow themselves to be debased for our entertainment?

I think that is what is driving my current discomfort with watching–and also driving why I am questioning having ever started watching them in the first place.

I also suppose as long as I continue to watch I can’t really criticize the shows, but I suppose I can critique them as well as the reasons why I watch them.

I also have a real problem with this season’s Beverly Hills primary story; the Erica Girardi/Erika Jayne “was she complicit in her husband’s fraud” story, playing out in real life as we watch how it played out when the story first broke…doesn’t sit well with me. Her decision to continue being the cold-hearted snake she plays on the show on social media–with not a bit of concern for the victims of her husband’s fraud; instead claiming martyrdom/victimhood for herself–will inevitably turn up in court when it comes to that; I cannot imagine what the fuck her lawyers are thinking letting her still have access to her own social media or not advising her to keep her fucking mouth shut while in front of the cameras is, at the very least, legal malpractice. If she even showed the least, smallest bit of concern for her husband’s victims…as opposed to making it all about her and what she’s “lost” (sorry your Sugar Daddy can’t steal more money to buy you jewels with)…I could be sympathetic….but yeah, go fuck yourself, grifter.

But given the state of our society and culture, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the grifting Girardis get away with their crimes. But if there’s no reckoning of any kind for her, and she remains on the show…I won’t be watching in the future.

At least the Giudices on New Jersey were white collar criminals who just didn’t pay their taxes. The Girardis–and Jen Shah on Salt Lake City–belong behind bars.

And maybe–maybe it’s time we stopped celebrated bad people behaving badly on television. I don’t know. But I am terribly disappointed with the producers for seeing ratings, instead of suffering. IMAGINE being one of Tom Girardi’s victims and watching her play victim? It turns MY stomach, and I am not one of their victims.

I don’t know. Maybe I can find joy in these shows again. But for now…I really don’t see how I can justify watching another season of either.

I’m Doin’ Fine Now

Tuesday! We survived Monday, did we not? That is, ultimately, a reason for celebration.

And–believe it or not, I finished Chapter Eighteen last night, which was incredibly cool. I haven’t worked on Bury Me in Shadows in so long I was beginning to think I was never going back to it.

Huzzah! Go, Greg, go!

They are slowly starting to close the Bonnet Carre Spillway, meaning that the river is beginning to go down, and might soon no longer be in flood stage. As we are ever aware in New Orleans, water is the eternal problem for our sinking city, and we will all sleep a little better knowing the flood is, at long last, receding.

We also finished watching Big Little Lies last night, and I have to say, I enjoyed it and thought it wrapped everything up nicely in a way the first season’s finale did not; which, of course, made the second season necessary. There shouldn’t be a third season; this is all tied up in a nice bow, and there’s no need for a third. It was, in a way, kind of nice seeing the fall-out from the lie they all agreed to tell after the ending of the first season; how the repercussions and fall out from the lie undermined and destroyed their lives in the third season–although blaming the lie for Renata’s troubles, which were solely the fault of her man-boy husband, is a bit much.

I slept deeply and well last night, but unfortunately am still wishing I was still in bed. I’m sleepy and tired, but not from not sleeping well, but rather from getting up too early this morning. It’s of course day 2 of my marathon opening the week each week, and I managed to make it through my entire day yesterday without either getting tired or being tired. This morning I woke up tired. I am hopeful the process of going through my morning ablutions will finish waking me up, and of course, tomorrow I can sleep a little later since I don’t have to be in until later. It’s also pay day, which means pay-the-bills day, which is never particularly pleasant, either.

Of course, when I get home from work tonight I’ll be watching part two of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion. I’m not entirely sure why; I have lost most of my interest in this show–it certainly doesn’t compare to either the New York or Atlanta (and, from what I’m seeing, Potomac) franchises, and I’m not entirely sure why. This past season’s emphasis on a boring storyline, having to do with a failed adoption of a dog and the fallout from the failed adoption, wasn’t particularly interesting, especially when production kept dancing around the reality of the actual situation and tried to force more drama out of it peripherally. Apparently, the show had new producers this season, and it showed; usually the women are at the mercy of production, but this season made it seem that the production was at the mercy of the women. One thing these shows are terribly good at it, though, is switching gears and manipulating the audience; a woman who is incredibly unlikable in one season can come out of another smelling like the proverbial rose, and vice versa. I try very hard not to get too involved in the outer trappings of these shows I watch–the energy expounded in watching the shows and deciding who to like and who not to like, and forming opinions on what I’ve seen, is more than enough time spent on them. I do occasionally like to read the recaps (some of which are absolutely hilarious) and will spend some time reading the comments on the recaps, simply to see how far off base my own opinions are, and to see how differently other people can process the very same thing I’ve watched. That, to me, is the most fascinating part of watching the shows–and it is very similar, as Camille Paglia pointed out (and it galls me to no end to agree with her about anything) the audience involvement with the reality television programs, and the Real Housewives franchises in particular, is very similar with how audiences used to get heavily involved in soap operas. An entire industry built up over soap fandom; the same is happening with the Real Housewives. 

The rise of reality television is also an interesting basis for a study on changes in American popular culture in the twenty-first century, which would make for either a brilliant long-form essay, or even a master’s thesis. (Someone, you are very welcome for this idea.)

Hopefully, tonight I will be able to tear through Chapter Nineteen after spending an hour rolling my eyes at the housewives. Gotta keep scratching things off that list, y’all.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree

Here it is, Wednesday already, and what have I got to show for the week thus far?

Very little, if I am going to be brutally honest. Other than losing my house keys at some point yesterday, which is incredibly annoying–particularly since we can’t seem to find the spare set of keys. Heavy sigh.

I used to misplace my keys and my wallet all the time; I can’t even begin to fathom how much time and energy in my life has been wasted looking for my keys and my wallet. When Paul and I first began living together a million years ago, he had a simple solution for the problem: simply put my keys and my wallet in a designated place every time I came home. A few years later I added a belt clip to my key ring, so I would always know where my keys were when I wasn’t home; they were clipped to a belt loop and therefore I always knew where they were. Yesterday, for some reason, at the office when I got in yesterday I tossed my key ring onto my desk, where they stayed for most of the day…and then when I got home last night, the house keys weren’t on my key ring. Which means, quite simply, at some point when I was clipping or unclipping my keys from my belt loop, the ring with the house keys must have come off. Yesterday I picked up a prescription and went out for lunch–so the keys could have come off at the pharmacy, the place I had lunch, either parking lot, or the parking lot at the office–or they could have come off on my desk when I was removing the key to my desk or the jump drive off the clip. I am hopeful they are either on or around my desk somewhere. Paul is going to have more keys made from his today regardless; but it’s still pretty fucking irritating.

But the good news, I guess, is I’ve only lost my keys twice in the last twenty-odd years. Granted, both times have been within the last three years, but it’s still a vast improvement over me spending hours per week trying to remember where I last put them.

This week I’ve been sleeping pretty well; this morning I stayed in bed longer than was completely necessary, and now I am a bit behind this morning, but that’s also fine. I tried not to let the missing keys bother me too much last night–it did annoy me, subconsciously, for most of the night, to be honest–but I just watched the snoozefest that the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has turned into–and seriously, it’s so boring and dull and stupid these days that I am tempted to stop watching entirely because I don’t really care anymore–as I’ve said before, New York remains the gold standard for these shows. I’m very close to bailing on Beverly Hills, frankly; it’s not particularly interesting any more, plus the women on this show clearly have issues having the dirt of their private lives aired on television–as opposed to, say, New York and Atlanta, whose cast members clearly LIVE for living in front of the camera.

And yes, I probably spend far too much time with reality television.

And now back to the spice mines.

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