The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills debuts tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The last time we dropped in on the Real Housewives franchise, the reality overlords at Bravo were reminding us that our nation is falling apart because much of our political system is enveloped by vapid dumbasses. After we thanked them for reminding us of this particular fact, they went on to create a show that seems designed to show us why so many of our movies and TV shows seem so stupid, with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Fortunately, movies and TV shows – though you wouldn’t know it from this Web site – are ultimately less important than the fate of the free world, so The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is much less likely to induce depression in its viewers. It’s also better cast. This franchise isn’t everybody’s thing, but this is likely the best installment of it since the New Jersey edition.

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When you watch a show called The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, you pretty much want exactly one thing: vain, rich women who are desperately clinging to their looks and rambling around in decaying Southern California mansions and behaving in a pampered fashion. The show lets viewers know they’re in good hands almost from the word go, with the amusingly named Lisa Vanderpump-Todd wandering about her house, feeding her dog breakfast in bed, declaiming about all manner of things in a British accent, then announcing that she has a child named Pandora. Lisa and all of the other housewives on the show have the same puffed up face (check off the “desperately clinging to their looks” box), and the show has selected a broad cross-section of L.A. upper class society to show off, though the wives tend to have fewer pretensions of their own importance on this series than they do on other series. Weirdly, this makes the show better.

Of the six wives, only one – Adrienne Maloof-Nassif – seems to have what would be termed a “successful job” in most of the rest of the country, even though her job is just nebulously “doing something” for the Maloof family, which owns the Kings. What makes all of this work is that she holds her riches (and pretty much everything else) over her plastic surgeon husband’s head, to his eternal consternation. The Real Housewives shows work best when they feel like they’re just a step or two above scripted sitcoms with broad, broad situations that have been seen since time began. This is assuredly one of those, and though Adrienne isn’t the show’s best “character,” her situation with her husband remains a constant source of amusement.

The other wives are an assortment of classic L.A. types, from the two former child actresses (Kim and Kyle Richards) to the celebrity’s wife (Camille Donatacci Grammer) to … well, it’s not immediately clear what Taylor Armstrong adds to the show beyond simply being there to fill out the required quota of six housewives. By far the most entertaining character here – and the best character the franchise has come up with in a while – is Kyle Richards, who’s a raving, stone-cold bitch. She puts down everyone else, either to their faces or in the confessional speeches. She’s not afraid to get physical. And in the “coming up on” segment at the end of the episode, she storms across a limousine to launch herself at her sister’s face, after her sister says … something not worthy of falling upon Kyle’s precious ears. These Housewives shows need characters like Kyle, and the material with all of the other wives feels like what viewers put up with just to get back to more of the sweet former child starlet taking on all comers action. Wisely, the show rations its Kyle moments, keeping viewers wanting more.

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The primary attraction for a lot of viewers will likely be Camille, who’s married to sitcom star Kelsey Grammer. (For a while, it seems like the show is going to keep all of this hush-hush, until Kelsey turns up to talk to his kids, kiss his dog, and give a brief, disinterested interview to the producers.) Camille and Kelsey’s marriage crumbled during the filming of this series, as Kelsey was off in New York City performing in La Cage Aux Folles, and having an actual celebrity flitting around the edges of the series might be enough to intrigue some viewers, especially if they want to see a sitcom actor and former Playboy model’s marriage fall apart. Sadly, at least in the premiere, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills doesn’t do a lot with this. Camille is the standard “flirty long past when she should have been” housewife in the show’s scenario, but she doesn’t get much more to do beyond that, and her husband mostly seems irritated at having to sit down and speak to the cameras.

Every Real Housewives premiere needs that moment when all six housewives come together and the audience begins to see how the fissures between them will erupt into crazy conflicts for the rest of the season to come. Fittingly for this series, that moment comes at a Lakers game, though with the Maloof connection, everybody flies up to Sacramento in a private jet to watch the game. There, we learn that Kim has trouble trusting other women she’s just met, that Taylor has no interest in climbing the walls other women put up for themselves, that Kyle can be an even bigger bitch than she previously seemed to be, and that Lisa, amusingly, seems to have no idea what a sports team mascot is (referring to the Kings’ mascot as a “pantomime lion”). It’s one of the better sequences of this sort that the franchise has come up with to this point, and if you like the franchise, you’ll likely be along for the ride by this point.

The main problem with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the same problem the franchise always has. The show may watch all of these antics with a snide, ironic tone, but at some level, it has to celebrate these women’s accumulation of more and more wealth and status and think that’s just the greatest thing in the world. In an America where the gap between the richest few Americans and everybody else continues to grow, that the franchise can’t even be the slightest bit self-critical continues to be a problem. This is wish-fulfillment TV, too often, and when it’s not that, it’s “let’s laugh at the clueless rich people” TV. Neither approach wholly works, and for as often as it tries, the show is unable to find a middle ground. And after six iterations of this basic formula, it’s starting to become as tired as a CBS crime procedural. Oddly enough, it takes what might be the best Housewives series in years to show just how creaky the formula has become.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s entirely possible I’m overrating this because it features the sorts of women I see around my local metropolis. If you’re not from the L.A. area, your mileage may vary.
  • Also, it should be pointed out that I have basically no affection for this series and don’t plan to watch beyond this first episode. My wife, however, thinks this one looks pretty good, and she’s been souring on the franchise for a while (though even she could only stomach the New Jersey edition for a full season).
  • Another enjoyably bizarre moment: Adrienne defends the Democrats to her Republican husband, then immediately (and for no apparent reason) begins dropping her son to the ground using some sort of martial arts.
  • "She was sort of dancing with a pantomime lion." "It's called a mascot."

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