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The Real Housewives’ explosive mix of make-up and malevolence is a work of high art

Sophie White

Forget Pinter, Polanski and Peckinpah - the most intense and violent work in the history of the moving picture is ‘Housewives’


The cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

The cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

The cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

The Housewives franchise was old news. But then a global pandemic hit and not only did die-hards go crawling back — if, indeed, they had ever left — a whole new cohort of Housewives blow-ins slinked off the ‘I’d never watch the Housewives’ high horse and rapidly became evangelical about the ladies of Beverly Hills, New York, Dallas, Potomac, Atlanta... I could go on, but you get the idea.

There’s already been a rake of ‘Housewives, I never knew you’-type takes on the Real Housewivenaissance This is not one of those takes. I’m not here to argue that it’s so bad it’s good or pretend that it’s a trashy guilty pleasure of mine. No, no. I am unequivocally condemning these takes, as they seem intent on ignoring that Housewives is nothing less than a work of fine art.

For Housewives naïfs, the shows land in a city among a group of hot, rich lunatics. These women are not exclusively housewives in the traditional sense; their occupations run from child actors to soap actors to failed actors and from models to ex-models to model wives to rich husbands (seriously, what is with David Foster?). There’s even a Wiccan, which seems more like something you’d see with a sullen goth on 16 and Pregnant, than in a mansion in Beverly Hills, but RH, like all great art, pushes boundaries.

The arc of most episodes hinges on parties; it’s a feat in itself that a group of seven or so women have enough functions to sustain a total of 77 seasons and 19 Housewives-adjacent spin-off series, with show titles like Kandi’s Ski Trip and Vanderpump Dogs. Every episode is essentially a riff on the seminal Dogme film Festen, which trapped its characters at a party, locked into festivities that soon turned into recriminations and humiliation.

Throwing the ever-feuding housewives together in various scenarios is all it takes for tensions to amp up faster than an abusive patriarch celebrating a milestone birthday. The conversations feel superficial, the words innocuous: ‘Where’s Kim?’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t come to my five-year-old’s $38,000-dollar birthday party?’ However, the dread builds until proceedings spiral into a comedy of menace, though arguably funnier and more menacing than any Pinter ever created. While Dogme had Von Trier, Housewives had Vanderpump, whose machinations caused more controversy than The Idiots. Who can forget the infamous Puppygate of season nine?

The subtly shifting (through intermittent cosmetic procedures) faces of the housewives calls to mind the garish, ghoulish neighbours of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The unnerving physical transformations toy with us — are they shapeshifters or just very, very rich? Who can tell for sure? They certainly bring the uncanny to The Valley.

As with all the most successful psychological thrillers, it is the implied violence that is the most effective in the case of the Housewives. Think the towering heels of the housewives, at all times threatening to overthrow their wearer or be employed as a shiv, should the catty remarks and side-eyes fail to land at yet another charity gala.

The shows are interspersed with confessional monologues from the housewives, forming a sort of cheery, bitchy Greek chorus unpacking the action as it unfolds. There are echoes of Winnie’s paradoxical pep from Happy Days in the way the housewives chirp from their positions lodged, not in a mound of dirt, but a shit-pile of a different variety, made up of property and possessions, make-up and malevolence.

Housewives is an unlikely refuge from a pandemic. In an era of economic uncertainty, worldwide depression and political unrest, surely the housewives, with their petty power games and obscene amounts of money, should be pissing us off more than ever right now? Not recruiting new fans flocking like impressionable children to a cult.

I think I’ve cracked the pandemic appeal, though. It’s providing the punch of an intense psychological drama but with manageably low stakes. Will the Housewives of Salt Lake City appreciate Mary Cosby’s ludicrous party favours? Has Lisa sold stories about the other housewives to Radar Online? Do we care? Not really and I sense that’s the point. It’s high art in the vein of Beckett but without the cerebral gymnastics required to understand it.

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