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'Housewives' on a giddy climb

Bravo's reality show set in Coto de Caza takes an inside look at the lifestyles of the rich and privileged, and their thirst for more.

January 16, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

If reality TV remains a fungus on our democracy, I have a persistent itch for "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

The show, brought back by Bravo for a second season that debuts tonight, was down-marketed out of the gate as a kind of Orange County Festival of Breasts, complete with Hummer rides, mansion tours and face-painting that involves needles and toxins as opposed to brushes and watercolor.

Google "real housewives" and you get a split screen: links to the Bravo reality series on one side, Internet sex sites on the other. But the afternoon delights on "Real Housewives" run toward money and things, not men (who here all seem like the same person, anyway -- golf shirts, boozy paunches, wraparound shades).

What women want, the show asserts, is to be kept in Vuitton while, outside the gates, Rome burns. Or these women, anyway, who aren't the porn-suggestive, bored and lonely housewives of the title but entrepreneurs, married and unmarried, of the good life.

They're social and business climbers, with kids and dogs and exes milling about.

Within all the nouveau riche slobbery, though, is something incrementally dramatic and layered, to do with the unexamined life and the emptiness of privilege. They're all, on some level, hapless strivers behind the gates of Coto de Caza, which makes sense.

Reality TV is a striver's medium, much of it about bestowing fame and money on so many Charlie Buckets living in so many hovels of anonymity, our Willy Wonkas named Donald Trump and Simon Cowell.

One of the reasons "Real Housewives" is so potentially boring is that there's no competition grafted onto it, no golden ticket. The cast members are mostly new-money true believers (if there is an element in this O.C. enclave that resents their exhibitionist gaucherie, we don't see them).

The show, in this way, is highly insular, a descendant of that long-ago MTV experiment "The Real World," only here it stars women between the ages of 25 and 55 (I'm guessing, as it's hard to tell where nature stops and science takes over).

These women, in the main, are very good fake actors, or fah-kactors, which is what I like to call the ever-spawning breed of nonprofessionals who go into reality-TV work, appearing as themselves.

Reality TV is so here-to-stay, and the fah-kacting community has become so self-perpetuating, that we might be nearing the day when the Emmys can no longer credibly ignore their work. Yes, there are Emmys in the category of best reality show and best reality competition show, but it could also recognize best fah-kacting in a reality show and / or reality competition, or best ensemble fah-kacting.

On "Real Housewives," there are two standouts. The first is Jo, the kept young woman of the evil duke of narcissism, Slade, a divorced dad who doesn't want his girl to move to L.A.

"It's like 15 minutes away from the freeway," Jo complains about bucolic Coto de Caza.

"You're so, like, anti, what is the deal?" he says.

They're gassing up the Hummer as they talk. It's all this blithe consumption, permeating the entire drama, that makes it possible to forget the characters are wearing body mikes.

Then there is Jeana, who, in a way, represents the show's conscience, because she appears not to have visited the knife or needle or mallet nearly as much as the others. A mother of three and the wife of a grumbling ex-pro baseball player, she flits between the instincts of maternal protector and real estate closer.

Why their stories work while the others (Lauri, Vicki, new cast mate Tammy) fail to captivate has something to do, no doubt, with the intersection of personality and craft -- the mysteries of fah-kacting. But it's remarkable how well the show can do when it just lets these two characters be.

You don't buy the over-constructed stuff -- the weekend getaway between Jo and Slade, where they go up in a balloon, for instance. The trouble with reality shows is normally the self-narration, the stuff between the action; but with "Housewives" it's the opposite: The quiet time works while the activities seem contrived and unnecessary.

The show doesn't need this kind of movement, because it's not about going anywhere, it's about holding on to what you have and hoping your children have it too, a trickle-down of self-regard and disengagement from the world at large.


'The Real Housewives of Orange County'

Where: Bravo

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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