Debuting Thursday, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" – the latest, and one would say, most likely iteration of the popular Bravo franchise -- submits for your disapproval another six overprivileged middle-aged women; their husbands, when they have them; their children, of whom there are many; and their little dogs, too. As before, it is easy enough to look at them and be appalled, even as we are enthralled. (I shall coin a word, "enthrappalled" to describe this reaction.)
But that would be the lazy reading. There is something different in this new edition, a sort of poignancy, almost, that invites sympathy more than it does abuse, an atmosphere that's almost … autumnal. (It hardly seems the right word for a show whose characters work so hard to make their lives an endless summer, but it's the one I keep coming back to – all "Real Housewives" are on some very basic level about unstoppable time.) Some of these women are troubled, certainly, but none of them seems like trouble. Indeed, I felt a little sad at times, watching – not as I usually do, for the society that could produce such a program, but for the actual women in it, as far as I could make them out.
There is Adrienne, who is a Maloof; her family owns the Sacramento Kings basketball team and the Palms resort in Las Vegas; she has a "work ethic" and apparently a good knowledge of judo. I would like to sit her down and discuss the plastic surgery, but given the specific existential soup that is Beverly Hills, I suppose I would sound like a man from Mars.
Lisa is British, long-married with grown children, and, like Adrienne, seems basically comfortable in her own skin, whatever external treatments she might apply to it. Taylor, from Oklahoma, characterizes her marriage to a venture capitalist as "80 percent business and 20 percent romance... but that's something I signed up for." She is having a little "filler" put in her temples as a hedge against "the event that one of these days the younger, better thing comes along, and you know, things happen." Ex- dancer Camille, who is married to Kelsey Grammar (they are now divorcing), sees the show as "an opportunity for me to show that I'm a real person," a fact that she signals by prefacing outrageous statements with disclaimers: as in "God this is going to sound so obnoxious," when she talks about flying in private jets or "This is going to sound crazy, don't judge me" before revealing that she employs four nannies for her two children.
Finally, there are Kim and Kyle, who are Kim and Kyle Richards, sisters and former child stars. (A third sister, Kathy, is the mother of Paris Hilton.) Kim is the less social older sister, a single mother possibly damaged by her early working life and now depending perhaps too much on her children to give her life meaning. Kyle is the more relaxed sibling, charged by their mother on her deathbed to look after Kim.
Reality TV is for the most part an art of caricature: it exaggerates certain features and tends toward the grotesque. But somewhere, possibly under lock and key, there must be reels and reels of footage in which these women look something akin to ordinary, in a way that the rest of us understand it, their monstrous mansions notwithstanding. Hath not a housewife eyes? Yes, even if pulled so tightly back toward her ears that it hurts to look upon them. If you prick them, do they not bleed? Well, they might not flinch, given the Botox, but, yes, they will bleed, probably.