Has COVID Zapped the Fun From ‘Real Housewives’?

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Over the years on the drama-filled, blissfully batty-and-booze-soaked seasons of The Real Housewives of New York Citythe standard-bearer when it comes mixing the perfect reality TV cocktail of comedy, delusion, pettiness, and pathos—there have been fights about brunch invitations. There have been arguments over Trump, informed voting, and civic duty.

There has been slut-shaming and sex positivity, “women supporting women” and frenemies betraying them, skinny dips and black-tie galas. There have been parties thrown, tantrums thrown, and prosthetic legs thrown.

We’ve followed divorces, sobriety journeys, legal troubles, and plastic surgeries. We’ve seen someone drunkenly tumble into a rose bush and then, rising from the bramble like a phoenix in Jovani, triumph on the cabaret stage.

The Shakespearean drama and tragedy of it all—who could say if it was more harrowing to watch cast members nearly drown in a shipwreck off the coast of Cartagena or witness Dorinda Medley’s dark descent into unhinged anger?—has reliably been chased down with a shot of some of the broadest humor on TV: Where were you when a turd fell out of Ramona Singer’s robe?

And so it’s a little jarring after more than a decade of braving that gale-force drama for RHONY, like the rest of the world during the time of filming, to come to an uncharacteristic quiet calm.

The most salacious thing to happen in Tuesday night’s season 13 premiere: As the city opens up and the women resurface from their respective quarantines, they gossip over whether one of them is lying about having COVID antibodies. Welcome to The Real Housewives of New York City: The Pandemic Season.

Judgment of how seriously celebrities, specifically reality stars—and especially Bravolebrities—have treated the pandemic has been a hot-button issue and endless bounty of coal to fuel the tabloid engine, given how easy it is track their behavior on social media. (Typically thanks to their own damning inabilities to stop posting.) Who is traveling? Who isn’t wearing a mask? Who, as has been the case for several Real Housewives cast members, actually got COVID?

RHONY is now the fourth Housewives franchise to air after filming during the pandemic. Each alternately triggers, mystifies, fascinates, or comforts viewers based on how production and the cast members have reacted to safety protocols.

Welcome to The Real Housewives of New York City: The Pandemic Season.

There was the enraging experience of watching certain Orange County cast members argue against shutdowns, calling COVID a hoax. Atlanta’s baffling inconsistencies with mask-wearing and social distancing was at least counterbalanced by the cast’s acceptance of the guidelines as a reality—at least until Cynthia Bailey’s lavish and large in-person wedding ceremony in October.

The women of New Jersey, who filmed a large chunk of their season over the summer when most shoots could happen outdoors, seem to have a resigned, matter-of-fact attitude about it all. They’ve allowed that season thus far to function as a more traditional Bravoverse distraction, one that’s less connected to the trauma of the world’s circumstances.

There’s a bit of poignancy to RHONY’s return to TV this week, as news of reopenings and the loosening of mask mandates make headlines and raise spirits in New York City. The show’s previous season premiered on April 2 of last year in the first soul-crushing, simultaneously listless and terror-inducing weeks of stay-at-home mandates. It was a dark, uncertain time, with cases rising alongside body counts.

The diversion of Bravo’s zaniest series was like manna from heaven—or, maybe more appropriately, Pinot grigio bottles from the Upper East Side. Amidst all the bleakness, getting to watch these women so crudely and fabulously galavant about Manhattan was a treat. A Ramona Singer high-pitched meltdown at a hotel bar? I felt a single tear drip from my eye.

We spoke with the cast ahead of that premiere when they were all miring through quarantine like the rest of us.

Luann de Lesseps was in the Hamptons with her children, using the time to clean out her basement and hone her TikTok skills. Ramona Singer set off a mass wave of eyes emojis in Bravo fans’ group texts when she revealed that she was quarantining with her ex-husband, Mario, in Boca Raton. Sonja Morgan had booked a stay at a spa in the California desert and, once travel restrictions hit, found herself stuck juicing and doing colonics indefinitely, telling me, “I haven’t had hard food in 10 days.”

As with the other Housewives franchises, seeing how the cast continued to weather the pandemic in the new episode will likely be relatable for viewers at home (case in point: the Atlanta women commiserating over their quarantine weight gains) and piss them off (see again: Bailey’s 250-person wedding).

The first line of the episode comes as Leah McSweeney enters a boxing gym, tosses her mask to the side, and says, “Oh my god, let me take this fucking thing off.” Singer reunites with Mario, and the two talk about traveling back and forth between Florida and New York. De Lesseps jokes that her love of grocery shopping has been ruined by having to wear masks: “I know we all need masks, and they can be fabulous. But for me, it’s like a fashion faux pas.” Fun, not-at-all exasperating stuff!

Morgan pledges, “These are crazy times, but I’m a crazy lady. So I feel right at home, actually. Cray cray is the way we roll.” That speaks to the promise of a new season of RHONY right now, regardless of whatever mask-and-social-distancing politics the cast does or does not adhere to: Ridiculousness and unhinged insanity to carry the show’s fans across the bridge from pandemic paranoia and sadness to whatever version of #HotVaxSummer they may or may not be planning. What we got instead was a polite brunch.

While it’s never not entertaining to watch this series, it is interesting for its big return to have been so subdued. Well, as subdued as an episode of television can be that features Morgan explaining to her intern that she can teach her more than a business school’s master’s program could, while completely naked as said intern draws her a bath.

We learn that time alone in quarantine inspired McSweeney to convert to Judaism. De Lesseps has once again pledged to stop drinking, horrified by her behavior over the summer “going out” (?!?) in the Hamptons and routinely blacking out. It leads to a candid and emotional conversation with McSweeney, who is also currently sober and game for being de Lesseps’ wingwoman in handling the pressure of keeping straight amidst the partying typical of the show.

Those scenes have always been the meat of the series, the grounding to all the hysterics and silliness. They give it cultural value. But the hysterics and silliness are still vital.

There’s been much written about what responsibility shows like Real Housewives have to meet the gravity of the current moment—and, maybe more important to some fans who rely on the shows for escapism, what responsibility they don’t have.

“It seems that the mood might have shifted away from the hedonistic escapism that it once offered,” Brian Moylan wrote in an excellent Vulture piece last fall. “In a time when more and more fans are holding public figures accountable for things they say and do, both on-camera and in their personal lives, can a class of reality stars weaned on outrageousness find a way to respond — and do we even want them to?”

What’s confusing about the understated RHONY premiere is that a sizzle reel that plays at the end of the episode suggests that it may be the franchise that figures out how to get the balance right.

New cast member Eboni K. Williams, the long-overdue first Black cast member of the series, arrives with an impressive confidence and, based on that trailer, wastes no time going toe-to-toe with the show’s veterans. The montage hints at drunken screaming matches galore, but this time they involve words like “gaslighting” and “Karen.” It all looks explosive and entertaining, but also in line with the kinds of conversations these shows need to be having, because they are the ones the world is having.

And however a long-term fan of the show feels about real-world, topical issues being brought into the gilded cage, no one can deny that Singer squirming as the show’s first Black cast member accuses her of gaslighting is excellent TV. It’s just, so far, a slow start to getting there.