ACCORDING to the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the rat, but on television, 2008 belongs to the New York society dame. First we had the one-two punch of "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle," stilettoed clumps of magazine editors and power execs juggling nannies and iPhones. Now Bravo brings us the reality version: "The Real Housewives of New York City."
An East Coast extension of the cult-enslaving "The Real Housewives of Orange County," the show follows the lives of five women, none of whom is remotely housewifely or, for that matter, "real," at least in a demographically representative sense. (Not a one lives in Queens, for instance.) But I suppose "Five Rich Social Climbers and a Camera Crew " just didn't fly with the marketing department.
There is a reason both these shows have names that ring vaguely of bad porn. They are porn, if not sexual then psychological. Here is a camera giving a mass audience glimpses of what, under normal circumstances, should never be glimpsed. The fact that everyone keeps their clothes on is almost beside the point -- sex we can see pretty much everywhere these days. But the inner self-justification and celebration of a bunch of tautly tanned rich women? Bring on the cheesy thumpa-thumpa music and the shirtless tennis pros.
Why is it that reality TV seems so much harder on women than on men? Maybe it is the feminine tendency toward confession. But women always appear more naked on these shows; on "Big Brother," "Survivor" and "The Hills," the men so often just hang their heads and look goofy while the women try to explain, which always makes you seem more scheming and duplicitous.
So it is on "Housewives of New York." With a blithe lack of awareness that is almost endearing, each woman introduces herself as a member of New York's society elite and then proceeds to behave in a way that defies every definition of "elite" and "New York society." I don't know if these gals have ever heard of Babe Paley or CZ Guest, but surely they have heard of Truman Capote. (He wrote "Breakfast at Tiffany's"? Philip Seymour Hoffman recently won an Oscar for playing him?) When Tru, beloved author and darling of the inner circle, dared to publish even fictionalized accounts of what went on in those East Side super apartments, so utter and thorough was the collective snub he was basically never heard from again. That's how it works in elite society.
Times may have changed, but not that much. So what we have here are five rich women, some of whom have homes in the Hamptons and get invited to parties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jill Zarin is probably the best known; she and her husband, Bobby, run Zarin Fabrics and Home Furnishings and show up on the society pages. LuAnn de Lesseps is indeed a countess (her husband is Alexandre Count de Lesseps, and his family apparently built the Suez Canal, which is pretty cool). Ramona Singer is an entrepreneur, running a fashion and jewelry company; Bethenny Frankel, the only single woman on the show, is a natural-food chef trying to get a Wild-Oats-meets-Martha-Stewart brand going even as her biological clock ticks ever more loudly.
Alex McCord is the most interesting, mostly because she has the leanest, hungriest look. She and her husband live (can you imagine?) in Brooklyn (the rest live on the Upper East Side), and she acknowledges that, while they are wealthy and successful, they haven't yet achieved the social status they desire. They do, however, have a French au pair of whom they are inordinately proud, and that has to count for something.
It is difficult, at least in the pilot, to keep track of who's who, mainly because (and I am speaking as an East Coast native) they all sound exactly alike, just as if they were born and bred on Long Island. Which, of course, many of them were. It doesn't help that just as we were getting to know the families, the beleaguered help and the real estate, everyone starts packing off to the Hamptons. Everyone except Alex and Co. -- they wisely retreat to St. Barts because the social rigor of the Hamptons "feels too much like work."
After showcasing more multimillion-dollar homes, along with those shirtless tennis pros and the "inner circle" of the Hamptons, the show gets down to business: exploiting the love/hate relationship we have with rich women, from which so many bestselling chick lit novels have sprung.