As someone primarily familiar with the New York City incarnation of the Real Housewives franchise, it’s refreshing to end an episode without losing all faith in humanity. Atlanta’s special in more ways than one, but the most uplifting was how little these ladies seem to hate everyone else on earth. There’s no constant manipulation and passive aggression, there’s no violent undercurrent, and the only shouting match doesn’t descend into the MAD war you’d find in the Big Apple. They may be frivolous, but they’re not hateful desiccated corpses that throw parties and badmouth each other. They just have solid gold utensils and flashy funerals and sex toy lines.
Oh, did I bury the lede? Yes, our very own Kandi has parlayed her web show about sex into a line of dildos, vibrators, and doggie style cushions. Sheree and Phaedra play with some particularly gnarly ones while waiting for her—since, you see, Kandi’s on colored people time and Tyler Perry’s writing Phaedra’s jokes—and it’s genuinely fun. Kandi asks if they think she’s crazy, and like good friends they say no. Kandi didn’t want the line to be “hoochie,” and they agree it’s not “raunchy.” Yes, these are classy sex toys for classy people. They’re neither blushing (Kelly) nor overcompensating (Sonja). It’s the most real I’ve ever seen any of the housewives.
I hate to keep comparing, but 1) it’s like I’ve escaped the New York cult and realize how good life can be and 2) this show has no plot anyway, so settle down, because the other major difference between the New York and Atlanta installments is what the Countess would call class. It’s there in the approach to sex toys, but it’s also in Phaedra’s funeral. See, her great aunt passes away, which leads to a line in the Starr Jones tradition, “As an attorney, I usually get called in when any family member’s passed so I can settle the estate.” As an attorney, she settles on a flashy funeral procession with cars that light up and play music, and I can already see the Countess blushing her wicked blush. Meanwhile, Nene buys a car for her son, and flirts it down (with help from a brief advertisement for the car which shall remain unnamed) from $14,900 to $13,500, chump change to Ramona, who’d spend as much on a party for her daughter. Later Nene sinks a basketball. The New York housewives are so far removed from real life that they barely have corporeal form; you can’t imagine any of them playing a sport or having sex or finding pleasure in anything. Atlanta is positively life-affirming.
But that’s where the praise ends—once more, with feeling: Atlanta is not as soulless as New York—because, as I said, this show has no plot, and its aesthetics are an endurance test. It’s almost some kind of postmodern argument that it’s not easy to turn life into narrative, no matter what Lauren Conrad says. We spend a half hour just getting reacquainted with the characters, and not for any reason. Nothing is set up in those scenes where Kim talks about how new boyfriend/baby-daddy Kroy’s ass “is like a masterpiece,” not that anyone’s complaining, but great fictional art has a reason for being, a motivation for beginning. Not this. It’s just time again, and this is Bravo’s highest-rated reality show.
So, like I said, we drop in to ogle Kroy’s muscles and ass, we get to see Nene flirt with an old boyfriend who now runs a car lot, we see Sheree at the recording booth where she drops this hilarious impossibility: “Since last year, I’ve been getting more attention for my acting.” Honey, we saw your audition. It’s okay. At least she has a gay friend to keep her company, because man, do the gays on this show bring the comedy (and the lip gloss). Cynthia invites Miss J—whom she says taught her, Tyra, and Naomi how to model, because when you think of supermodels, you think of Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, and Cynthia Atlanta Housewife—to drop in at her new modeling agency, and it’s easily the highlight of the episode. He models “white girl at the mall” and “black girl who knows everything” as examples of what not to do, and then he gently mocks an 11-year-old to her face. It’s hilarious. Too bad none of it’s connected to anything else, like pieces of six different puzzles jammed together like a tacky, blind Joseph Cornell.
Eventually, like in the final 15 minutes, we stumble onto some conflict. Nene’s upset because she heard that Sheree says Nene took money out of her pocket. So they have a sit-down, and mercifully, instead of smiling at each other and couching the world’s meanest insults in friendly lilts, these two are straight with each other, daring and bluffing and shouting. Did I mention how refreshing the lack of pretension is? This particular expression of pretension, I mean. They still have solid gold utensils.
I don’t really know or care who’s right in this situation. Over on New York, I have a firm understanding of the history, but here, I’m a neophyte, and it’s kind of a yawn anyway. Nene bluffs, Sheree calls her on it, then Nene freaks out. Pretty obvious, no? I’ve heard the argument that we watch these reality series like Hoarders and Jersey Shore like old-fashioned freak shows, so we can gawk at the weirdos and feel better about how good our own lives are. If that’s the case, it’s buried so deep inside me that all the gum I swallowed as a kid will come out first. While exploitation is certainly a component, I think it’s more likely we watch because we like to follow characters. It’s security staying with the same people year after year, and we’re all voyeurs. Bravo just packaged the supply.
There is one final value in The Real Housewives of Atlanta. In the age where Cleveland is the one network show with a predominantly minority cast, there’s an innate value in having a mostly black cast on a show that is targeted much wider. Simple exposure advances the cause of racial understanding, and it helps that these women aren’t wretched. It’d be nice if the show had more to it than tokenism and mild personalities, but when it comes to Real Housewives, that’s as good as it gets.