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Life's little dramas on 'Southern Belles'

The women of Louisville grin and bear it on the Soapnet reality series. But on this decorum- heavy series, the unspoken is equally intriguing.

July 05, 2009|Jon Caramanica

The thrills of the "Real Housewives" series on Bravo have little to do with geography. Women of arriviste position and little self-regard are capable of internecine warfare regardless of whether they live in New York, Atlanta or Orange County. Outburst-inclined women: Move freely! Peers and cameras await you wherever you may roam.

Except, perhaps, in Louisville, Ky., where tongues are bitten and hostility sublimated into unhealthy romances. At least, so it is on "Southern Belles: Louisville" (Soapnet, 10 p.m. Thursday), a soft-focus show in the "Real Housewives" mold that nevertheless treats its stars -- Shea, Emily, Julie, Kellie and Hadley -- more like the fetish objects of "The Hills" than the demolition-derby vehicles of the "Real Housewives" series.

In Louisville, putting on airs is exercise, though in the case of "Southern Belles," it might not matter: Whatever drama there is among the show's five women is minor and therefore feels genuine, not contrived. Little quibbles get swallowed whole, hidden behind broad smiles.

The queen of grinning and bearing is Shea, the daughter of a wealthy doctor with eyes on a life in Louisville society. Her self-destructive impulse cannot be discounted, though: She's engaged to Jeff, a slightly schlubby lawyer who struggles with their class difference. When shopping in a fancy store, she warns him, "Do not break anything in this store!"

When Shea speaks about getting engaged, she does so to anyone within earshot and with eyes bulged. When Jeff talks about it, it's only to the camera and only with extreme hesitation. "When am I gonna put a ring on her finger?" he muses. "When I can afford one that she would be willing to wear."

Shea's nemesis, as these things go, is Emily, who by midseason (this week's episode is the eighth of 10) has already fled her overbearing, moralistic parents for a job hosting an online entertainment show in Las Vegas. ("You are a father's nightmare," her father tells her.) When Shea gathers the group (sans Julie -- more on that later) to break the news about her engagement, Emily would rather discuss her new haircut, which, in fairness, is about equally tragic. (In one episode, she hires an image consultant to help spiff up her wardrobe and cries at what she's told, physically rebuffing the offer of a hug before running out of the room.)

Kellie, twice divorced and a former cocaine addict, is eager to rebuild her life and career, but her ambition, backed by only a little inspiration, is dull. Better is her friend Julie, a model and the only black cast member, living behind insurmountable emotional walls -- "In salsa dancing, the man leads and it was a little bit hard for me to give up control," she said after a date in last week's episode -- and enacting in her modeling shoots all the things she lacks in life: a happy marriage, motherhood, steady employment.

Rounding out the crew is Hadley, taking a hiatus from a PhD program to devote full-time resources to embodying the Jennifer Aniston character from "Friends With Money": broke, romantically hapless, almost unbearably flighty, lacking any core principles.

Turns out, though, that while these women are more complex than their "Housewives" peers, their behavior is less compelling. Many of the show's best moments echo scenes from other reality shows: Kellie's tough-love dating service seems borrowed from the Patti "Millionaire Matchmaker" Stanger playbook. The Botox party Kellie hosts parallels one from "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" (and others). The charity auction arranged by the women, which raised just $3,572, makes the miserable one organized by DeShawn on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" last season seem like a rousing success. (The often-snippy disembodied voice-over -- "While Jeff won't say if he got any help with that ring, anyone who knows Shea knows that he could be paying for it for the rest of his life" -- is a direct rip from "Desperate Housewives").

Pleasantly, "Southern Belles" is buffeted by a collection of vivid secondary and tertiary characters, often more alive with verve and possibility than the show's stars they attend to: Anand, the handsome diamond wholesaler from Chicago; Katie King, a tightly ponytailed candidate for district court judge for whom Hadley volunteers; Kim Vo, a sinister hairstylist who, along with an emotionally tone-deaf staffer, sculpts Emily's hair into what looks like a crown of twigs; Dr. Melissa, the dog therapist whom Kellie hires to cure her dog of a humping problem; and Terry Meiners, a Louisville radio personality with a rigid carriage and a website as awkwardly cluttered as the GeoCities pages of yore.

They help add texture to scenes where decorum reigns. But on "Southern Belles," the unspoken can be as intriguing as what's said. At the country club to discuss the charity auction, at Shea's father's house watching the commercial for Kellie's dating-service business -- these are the places where the show's four white women gather, without Julie, whose inclusion in the show often feels token.

A couple of weeks ago, the women retreated to a lake house for a weekend -- except for Julie, who arrived late and left early. "If I had as much leisure time as Shea or Kellie did, I could probably stick around longer, but I have to get back to work," she said, poking at the race and class divides that exist beneath the show's, and perhaps the city's, surface. "That's just how my life is." While she was with the women, though, she didn't so much as arch an eyebrow.

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