UPPING THE ANTE
The Bravo reality series has been awash in explosive controversies, yet its ratings remain low. Where will the franchise go from here?
By Louis Staples/Daily Beast
It all started with a dramatic phone call, like so many of the great reality TV scenes do. In the back of a now-infamous black Sprinter van, five stars of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Salt Lake City were waiting to leave for a girls’ trip to Vail, Colorado. That’s when Jen Shah answered her cellphone.
After Shah hung up the call, she asked her co-star Whitney Rose to switch her microphone off. (In reality TV, this always means something is up). She then told the women that her husband, Sharrieff “Coach” Shah, was in the hospital and swiftly exited the scene. In her absence, Shah’s co-stars reeled from the news. But none of them could have known what was really going on, or that what was about to happen would change their lives—and reality TV—forever.
An hour later, Shah was arrested by the FBI alongside her assistant Stuart Smith. As part of a decade-long investigation, they were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering, which carry a maximum sentence of 30 and 20 years respectively. Both pleaded not guilty, though Smith later changed his plea to guilty. Her trial is set for later this year in New York.
People often ask me why I watch Real Housewives. It’s a fair question. I’ve spent hundreds of hours watching roughly 12 different Housewives shows from around the world, some for over 10 years, often more than once. But when the teaser for the second season of RHOSLC hit Twitter in September 2021, even Bravo virgins were captivated.
Nine episodes in, we got to see the cast find out about Shah’s arrest in real time. Shortly before the remaining women departed Salt Lake City, cops from the FBI and NYPD had surrounded their vehicle, asking where she was. As cameras rolled, some of the ‘wives thought it was an elaborate prank, suspecting the “cops” might be strippers. But then helicopters began to fly overhead. As the van sped toward Vail, the news hit the media.
Shah’s arrest became an international news story. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Real Housewives. But this isn’t the first time that criminality has hit the Bravo franchise: Teresa Giudice, an original cast member of the New Jersey show, spent 11 months in prison in 2015 for mail, wire and bankruptcy fraud. Her husband Joe Guidice, who served 41 months, was eventually deported to Italy by ICE.
The latest season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was similarly scandal-hit. Tom Girardi, estranged husband of Real Housewife Erika Girardi (who also goes by the moniker Erika Jayne), was accused of swindling millions of dollars from his legal clients over decades. Girardi, whose legal work inspired the film Erin Brockovich, stands accused of treating his law firm like a “ponzi scheme” and embezzling money he won on behalf of orphans and plane crash victims to fund the pair’s lavish lifestyle. Jayne has always denied any knowledge of her estranged husband’s financial dealings.
Elsewhere, there have been a slew of bankruptcies, tax issues, money-related lawsuits, assault charges, and alcohol-related offenses. The most highly-publicized of these was in 2017, when a newly divorced “Countess” Luann de Lesseps was arrested and charged with four felonies in Palm Beach, Florida. Footage from the police vehicle, which was aired on Real Housewives of New York City, showed the intoxicated reality star escaping a police car.
Shah’s arrest took things to a whole new level. Not only were the charges much more serious, but the cameras were literally rolling as the feds showed up to apprehend her. Like Jayne, she kept filming after the news broke, perplexing and horrifying legal experts.
All things considered, expectations for season 2 of RHOSLC could not have been higher. As the season comes to a close, did the show live up to the hype?
In some ways, yes. The three episodes that chronicled the lead-up to, climax, and immediate aftermath of Shah’s arrest were some of the most captivating episodes of reality TV ever made. When the women arrived in Vail they attempted to work out what had happened, each adding pieces of the puzzle that they knew or suspected, but had never dared say on camera. Meredith Marks even revealed she had hired a private investigator following a long-running feud with Shah. It was jaw-dropping.
Aside from its obvious entertainment value, Shah’s arrest highlighted how reality TV rewards its stars for projecting an image of wealth. It was confirmed by her attorney that her palatial Utah home, nicknamed the “Shah Chalet,” was actually rented. The super-rich image that she created on the show, which undoubtedly influenced her casting, turned out to be a mirage. Her attorney insisted she had no significant assets and, after her arrest, she was filmed relying on her mother’s retirement fund for financial support.
Housewives gives us a snapshot into how the wealthy and wannabe-wealthy operate. Time and time again, its scandal-embroiled stars use their money and status to insulate themselves from consequences. Giudice’s pay reportedly sky-rocketed after she returned from jail, making her one of Bravo’s highest-paid stars. She also cashed in with a book deal and spin-off show. De Lesseps, whose “tagline” on the show after her arrest was “I plead guilty—to being fabulous,” used the publicity to launch a successful cabaret career and an alcohol-free rosé brand.
These scandals go to the heart of what makes Housewives so fascinating: it’s a story about American society. That is what pulled Kate Aurthur, editor-at-large at Variety, toward the franchise. “Watching Real Housewives since 2006 has taught me more about American culture than anything else,” she tells The Daily Beast. “More than mainstream news outlets, more than any documentary, more than any book.”
The concept of a Real Housewife being arrested by the FBI was enthralling. But the show struggled with the on-camera reality of what happened next. Shah is facing serious criminal charges, so she was unable to discuss many details of the case, or say anything other than profess her innocence. Fans hoped she would speak about the case as much as Jayne had discussed her estranged husband’s legal issues on RHOBH. That was a very different situation, though: there was intense speculation about how much Jayne knew, but she had not been charged with a crime, so could speak much more freely.
Shah’s inability to talk about the case created a vacuum. Normally, there are one or two central conflicts per season of Housewives, which serve as the central source of the drama. But without any details, it was difficult to turn Shah’s arrest into a longer, season-defining storyline. Instead, the show became a circular firing squad of conflict: Meredith vs. Jen, Mary vs. Whitney, Lisa vs. Meredith, Jennie vs. Mary, Whitney vs. Lisa, Meredith vs. Whitney, Heather vs. Mary—the list goes on. Some of these arguments were potentially life-ruining: Several ‘wives were branded adulterers and Cosby was accused of running a religious cult. Marks was even accused of leaking Shah’s whereabouts to the feds—as if the FBI would need such a tip-off—and lying about the timing of a memorial service for her recently deceased father.
Some of these arguments were potentially life-ruining: several ‘wives were branded adulterers and Cosby was accused of running a religious cult. Marks was even accused of leaking Shah’s whereabouts to the feds… and lying about the timing of a memorial service for her recently deceased father.
It might sound strange to talk about conflict as a bad thing, because most reality TV revolves around it. Some of the most iconic Housewives moments—like Aviva Drescher throwing her prosthetic leg across a New York cocktail party, Giudice’s Jersey-style table-flipping, and vape-puffing Beverly Hills medium Allison DuBois—were born out of confrontations. Lisa Barlow’s electrifying “hot mic” moment, in which she was heard suggesting Marks had “fucked half of New York,” is certainly an addition to the Housewives Hall of Fame.
But in this season of RHOSLC, conflict has felt relentless. When arguments aren’t interspersed with comic relief, or scenes with a different volume and vibe, they quickly lose their entertainment value. It’s impossible to get into the minutia, or work out why someone is really hurt and what it says about them and their values, when everyone is screaming at each other. And it’s more difficult to “pick a side” when it feels like everyone is in the wrong.
Writer Louis Peitzman, who has recapped episodes of RHOSLC for Vulture, thinks the showhas forgotten that Housewives works best when drama feels organic, rather than for the cameras. “If it feels like the cast have no real reason to hang out, and that they’re fighting solely for a storyline, it’s not entertaining to me,” he tells The Daily Beast. By the end of the season, most of the Salt Lake City cast looked miserable in group scenes. Cosby did not show up to the reunion, blaming “lies” her co-stars had said about her, before quitting the show altogether.
These problems come back to casting. In The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives, Brian Moylan argues that each show needs a mix of characters who exist in real friendship groups: queen bees, betas, pot-stirrers, and fence-sitters. Salt Lake City struck that balance in season 1, but in season 2 it feels like everyone is striving to be the Main Character. This often happens on Housewives: after one season on the show—which comes with newfound fame, business opportunities, and social media followers—the behavior of cast members changes. “The women are way more conscious about how they come across on camera,” Peitzman says. “Even with the backdrop of Jen Shah’s massive case, the show only really produced a handful of great episodes, and I think that should teach an important lesson on the need for stronger casting, obviously stronger background checks, and making sure there are real, dynamic relationships at play.”
The background checks Peitzman mentions are a reference to the casting of RHOSLC newbie Jennie Nguyen. The end of season 2 was engulfed by controversy after social media posts from Nguyen’s Facebook profile surfaced. Some of the posts featured anti-Black racism, such as mocking violence against BLM protesters and conspiracy theories about the murder of George Floyd. Bravo fired her from the show, apologizing for not firing her sooner and not catching the posts in their vetting process. At the reunion, racist comments made by Cosby toward Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, were discussed in Cosby’s absence. But the reunion was filmed before Nguyen’s anti-Black posts resurfaced, so her comments and firing weren’t addressed. This only added to the unresolved, unsatisfying feeling that has stalked the latter part of the season.
But the reunion was filmed before Nguyen’s anti-Black posts resurfaced, so her comments and firing weren’t addressed. This only added to the unresolved, unsatisfying feeling that has stalked the latter part of the season.
The latest seasons of Bravo’s Beverly Hills and Salt Lake City shows have normalized Housewives revolving around “a big story.” This started with Giudice’s legal issues and continued on Real Housewives of New York City when, at the peak of the show’s popularity, de Lesseps was arrested and a cast boat trip in Colombia became a horrifying near-death experience. These stories—which felt like the exception, not the norm—were heavily leaked to the press as they happened, encouraging fans to tune in months later. It’s a similar strategy that was used to promote Keeping up with the Kardashians, where fans got to watch the “real” story behind the headline-generating divorces, secret pregnancies, and robberies of reality TV’s First Family.
The problem with this is that it is unlikely that Salt Lake City, or the Housewives franchise as a whole, will be able to keep up the pace. Looking ahead to the third season, Shah’s trial will be a focus (unless, as has been reported, it has been moved to July) and perhaps Nguyen’s firing, too. But beyond that, it’s unclear where the show—which is among the lowest-rated Housewives shows—will go. As Jayne’s legal scandal fades from the headlines, Beverly Hills faces a similar dilemma. Its cast have used a frenzy of leaks and cryptic Instagram posts to tease the next season’s feuds, but will it be enough?
As captivating as the latest seasons from Beverly Hills and Salt Lake City have often been, they represent a move away from traditional Housewives drama. If we look at the shows which have had the most consistent support from fans—Potomac, Atlanta and, until recently, New York City—their golden eras have mostly revolved around the real fluctuations and conflicts between a friendship group of rich women. “Housewives used to be more of a vibes show: you build a great cast and we’re content to watch them hanging out, throwing dinner parties, occasionally throwing wine glasses,” Peitzman says. “Erika’s marital and legal drama revitalized RHOBH and gave us the most compelling season of that show we’ve had in years, but the downside now is that the stakes have been raised. The mediocre last season of RHOSLC is a good reminder that having a ‘big story’ doesn’t necessarily make for a great season.”
What makes the perfect season of Housewives is hard to define. As Peitzman says, it’s a vibe—which can shift drastically from one season to the next. There are pockets of promise in Salt Lake City: Diet Coke and Taco Bell’s unofficial ambassador Lisa Barlow is practically a living meme. Heather Gay’s post-Mormon journey has provided a much-needed respite from the screeching. With newbies replacing Nguyen and Cosby next season, plus Shah’s trial whenever it comes, it’s too soon to write it off.
Still, the “new normal” that RHOSLC has helped to create—of a huge sandal ramping up the drama and fan anticipation—has franchise-wide ramifications. There is potential for short-term gratification, but also disappointment: with the stakes raised so high, where can the franchise go next? Will shows now be written off if there’s no “big story?”
RHOSLC season 2 has taken me back to the central question of why I love watching Housewives. Conflict and scandal are part of it, for sure. But when they become so loud that they drown everything else out, I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic for the shows about rich women doing things—women who didn’t always get on, but were genuinely invested in each other and knew where the “lines” were when they argued. Watching RHOSLC this year, I’ve been surprised by how much my love for Real Housewives has been tested.