Already, 2021 has had no shortage of sobering moments. Armie Hammer (allegedly) being a cannibal. Azealia Banks boiling her dead cat. The pandemic refusing to evaporate like Cinderella’s stagecoach the second we bellowed “happy new year” into the eerie silence of our living rooms. But none has been more sobering than the moment when I realised that I have watched more than 190 hours of Real Housewives during lockdown.
It was especially startling because I had never considered myself much of a reality TV fan. Certainly not the type of lunatic who dedicates hours to watching extremely privileged women scream about whether or not they have Munchausen’s. Having appeared on reality TV as a teenager, I felt as though I understood the format and took for granted that much of the action is stage-managed. I reasoned that, if I was going to watch people ham it up unconvincingly, I could watch Pose, or a Boris Johnson press conference. But Housewives is different.
This is partly because at least some of the cast have existing relationships. In the Beverly Hills incarnation of the franchise, Kim and Kyle are sisters forced to confront the former’s alcoholism. In Salt Lake City, two of the cast went to school together, although one cattily refuses to acknowledge the fact. We follow the characters’ lives over years in which they get divorced, arrested and, in at least one case, die. It doesn’t get much realer than that.
Unusually, the franchise isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall – memorably when Denise Richards repeated the name of the network during a scene in an attempt to have the compromising footage scrapped. “Bravo, Bravo, fucking Bravo” has since become my mantra.
Each season culminates in a baroque three-part reunion, during which the women attempt to settle scores and take viewers inside the mechanics of the show. In one, a cast member fumes that she invited the other women to her wedding only at the request of the producers. This acknowledgment of the produced elements of the show makes the rest of it feel more authentic. Besides, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, as evinced by Camille’s assertion that she was the top during her relationship with Kelsey Grammer (fittingly, he later compared their 13-year marriage to being in prison).
None of this is particularly edifying. It has become fashionable to claim that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, but try telling yourself that when it is 2am and you are coming off another five-hour shift of watching women launch their prosthetic limbs at each other across the dinner table. For me, the mindlessness is the point. The trend for leisure time as self-optimisation existed before the pandemic, but seemed to intensify once we were confined to our homes. Mainlining Housewives when I am supposed to be baking banana bread, doing Hiit workouts or writing a novel feels like an illicit thrill at a time when going to nightclubs and having casual sex has been outlawed.
Beverly Hills was my gateway into the franchise, and the fact that I came to it on a 10-year delay has its own pleasures. During a period in which the average person’s concerns are literally life and death, it is a relief to become seriously invested in things that happened a decade ago and were mostly inconsequential even then. There is a pleasantly numbing quality to caring deeply about whether or not Lisa Vanderpump planted gossip rags in Brandi’s suitcase, or whether Jen does, in fact, “smell of hospital”. I should say that despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws, many of the women are extremely likable. Lovable, even. Their struggles are our struggles, just with added hand-reared gay swans and alopecia-prone pomeranians (RIP Giggy, who never seemed convincingly alive).
Once I was hooked on the franchise, I became evangelical about it. I have successfully converted half of my friends to watching, causing one to speculate that “perhaps the real virus is Kim Richards”. Now that our lives have ground to a halt, gossiping about the housewives has filled the void where we used to gossip about each other. On New Year’s Eve, some of us scheduled a Zoom to discuss recent – by which I mean eight-year-old – developments in our show. I am not particularly proud of it, but this is my life now. As one of the housewives might say, drawing pensively on a cigarette as she surveys the Hollywood hills, it is what it is.