Sometimes, television boils down merely to a matter of taste.
This week, Bravo serves up two new reality shows, built to cater to two very different sensibilities. One is a spin on the network’s tried-and-true Real Housewives franchise—Ladies Of London, a quasi-real look at seven extremely wealthy and privileged women living in the English capital, and Untying The Knot, a case-of-the-week show where a divorce lawyer tackles dividing another ex-couple’s assets every week.
Of the two, it’s the former that’s more irritating, and therefore more indelible. Ladies Of London—a slightly more refined name than, say, The Real Housewives Of London—suggests a certain elegance and posh, British sensibility. It has none of those things—it is just a show about rich people, without the character drama of Downton Abbey or the class sensibilities of Upstairs, Downstairs. It has the added benefit of being “real,” which makes its arrogant characters all the more frustrating. And unlike its sister housewives in the Real Housewives franchise, the ladies of London haven’t the slightest sense of humor about their self-importance.
The ostensible conflict of Ladies Of London is that while a few of the women in the show are from the U.K., the rest are all American expats. Their lives, we’re told, are hard. British society is unwelcoming; it has rules that are never spoken but strictly enforced. American girls are seen, derisively, as too loud or unbecoming; it’s assumed by Londoner Caroline Stanbury that British men like American women because they’re all taught to be “Stepford wives.”
The actual conflict is between haves and have-nots—and there are no have-nots depicted on-screen. Like so many other reality shows, Ladies Of London exists primarily as a window into the world of the wealthy. One woman is the Earl Of Sandwich’s wife; another has a walk-in closet lined with Hermès bags. Maids and nannies of color dot the edges of each shot. (When Stanbury discovered she was pregnant with twins, she ran home and told her housekeeper, “You’re having twins!”) One ambitious expat with a small child designs “bespoke” parties for toddlers. The women casually pop in to take afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, where an average tea service will set you back at least $70 a person. And of the six primary women (the earl’s wife is a bit of a background figure), no fewer than four started their careers as models. Three of those women started their careers some 20 years ago; they could still pass for a cool 25.
The thing is, Ladies Of London is ostensibly a show about how silly these women are—how self-absorbed and superficial they are, with their extremely limited concerns and their willfully ignorant privilege. But the joke, always, is on the audience. Of course they’re eager to be catty and materialistic on-screen—they are absolutely convinced that their pursuit of (more) wealth and (more) status is all that matters. The setting is a red herring—this is truly a show about power. Juliet sums it up: In America, it’s all, “Who do you know that’s famous?” while in Britain, it’s “Who do you know with a title?” This charmingly reductive worldview is brought to you by Bravo and BBC Worldwide. Ladies Of London would be less galling if it were trashier—at least it wouldn’t then remind the viewer of how much these people on-screen control, as they sit at tea, trading barbs about who got more press attention this week.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey: Vikki Ziegler is a divorce attorney who calls herself “The Divorce Diva”: She mediates couples’ divorces, primarily through the splitting of assets. Given the number of reality shows that are about weddings, it seems only reasonable to see a show based on divorces—and the messy, drawn-out fight about property that ensues.
Ziegler is a funny and charming host, able to set the proper tone for the proceedings right from the start. She’s practical, not cynical; realistic, not romantic. She listens to each side of the story, and pays attention not just to the assets named but also to the couple’s dynamic. Because Ziegler’s job isn’t just to swipe a hatchet down the middle: She has to make her clients feel happy about it, too. (Or at least, not screwed over.) It’s a sudden and striking difference from the other show: Where Ladies Of London works to create more drama with each episode, Untying The Knot works to minimize it. The goal is resolution, and it makes for a far more satisfying and intimate portrait of the wealthy than anything seen on Ladies Of London.
Of course, it’s not quite as splashy as near-royals and former models—in the first two episodes of Untying The Knot, there’s only one former model—but it’s not spare change, either. Ziegler’s clientele is the upper-middle-class of New Jersey, the part of Jersey that forms suburban New York. It explains their zeal for counting pennies—truly, only the bourgeoisie can make having money look like so much work. But it also gives Ziegler’s job a bit of zing. Sometimes, assets in question come out to be worth “only” $800, and Ziegler will pass it on to the partner who had more attachment to it. Other times, some jewelry in a box will end up being worth $60,000, and Ziegler has to navigate the tricky pathway of possession: Who bought it? Was it bought with joint assets? Was it a gift? Is it inscribed?
Ladies Of London fetishizes stuff; Untying The Knot deals with stuff. The former flaunts the engagement ring, free of its cost, context, history, or future; the latter appraises it, reviews it, examines it, and puts it in its place. If Ladies Of London is the rancid fantasy of wealth and power, Untying The Knot is its bracing chaser.
It’s also much more watchable. Untying The Knot comes in half-hour packages, and the basics are so simple that no “previously on” is required. It falls into the mode of many of TLC’s shows, including Say Yes To The Dress and Long Island Medium, which follow subjects through their workdays. Untying The Knot simplifies even further by focusing on just one divorcing couple per episode. And for fun, Ziegler is joined by the appraisers, a pair of brothers who have made it their life’s work knowing what things are worth. Like fellow Bravo show Top Chef, Untying The Knot has one clip, shown mid-commercial-break, that is more Easter egg than anything. It’s a perfect moment for the brothers, Michael and Mark Millea, to fawn over a dog or chat about how they got into the business with their clients.
It’s not exactly a question of which show is better or worse—it’s more a question of what kind of aftertaste they leave the audience with. Untying The Knot offers a way forward for sad people, albeit through diamond necklaces and properties in Paris. Ziegler occasionally throws some marital advice at the audience (mostly, “Get a pre-nup!”). Ladies Of London offers sustained drama, maintained through people who don’t seem very nice—who are eager to remind the audience just how wonderful they are, because their position in life depends solely on maintaining an aura of the rarefied elite.
Or, as Caroline Stanbury might put it, following her “posh put-down” of fellow London Lady Noelle’s “totally inappropriate” and “too smart” outfit at a polo match—darling, both the British and American ways of doing things are totally fine. But there’s only one that’s right.
Untying The Knot
Produced by: Engel Entertainment
Starring: Vikki Ziegler, Michael Millea, Mark Millea
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on Bravo
Format: Half-hour reality show
Two episodes watched for review