Where I come from, the pizza’s better and the people talk a little louder. Rocking out at Bruce and Bon Jovi concerts has pretty much destroyed our hearing, so no one really gets offended by the yelling. We can also differentiate between “loving yelling” and “angry yelling,” as we’re trained early on to know the key tonal differences. Quieter regions in America don’t seem to understand, but in New Jersey, things are just a little bigger – the hair, the sound, the crystal chandeliers in the family event space…
When I tune in to The Real Housewives of New Jersey on Monday nights, I hear the dulcet tones of my native state. That said, I need to clear up an issue that arose Monday night; while minor in terms of things I want to say about the show, I have to get it out of the way. Everyone from New Jersey knows they have an accent*. The trick is knowing what makes your “o”s and “a”s funny and masking them in polite company. (Unless we’re angry. Like most people who have regional accents, all bets are off when we’re emotional.) That way, we can tell Midwesterners to suck it while doing a pretty nice imitation of their accents. By the way, pointing out that we have accents is unnecessary. Like I said, we know. But if you point it out to us on our turf, well, then, the problem is really with you and your accent.
This lack of self-knowledge about one’s accent and how we throw “w”s into every word that has an “o” in it was only one of the issues that puzzled me during this week’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Gia’s painful dialect and acting lessons, coupled with Bravo’s clear jabs at Teresa’s lack of self-awareness about being a stage mom were actually some of show’s more lucid moments, and that’s mildly troubling. Seeing Teresa in her day-to-day life (and sort of being made a fool), made me pause to ask some questions about what I’ve been tuning in to. I watched and fully enjoyed the first season of table flipping, prostitution whore action, but this season I’ve just been confused by what Bravo has been airing on Monday nights. So confused, in fact, that I started reading the Real Housewives’ blogs at Bravo’s website just to see if there are answers to my increasingly loud cries of “WHAT IS THIS?” and “WHY?”
Since I think in lists, I’m going to lay out – in an organized, numbered fashion – why I’m confused about this season and why I’m struggling over whether this is a farce, a public disaster, entertaining, or downright snarky. Because I honestly don’t know. I can’t stop watching, but it makes me uncomfortable. And I can’t tell if it’s because The Real Housewives of New Jersey is actually revealing something troubling about people or if the show is just making trouble about people. Because there’s a big difference there. So, here’s what’s what and why I’m all tied up:
1. While the show is called The Real Housewives of New Jersey, for season 2 they should have renamed it The Danielle Staub Paranoia Extravaganza, Featuring the Women Who Previously Exposed Their Lives for The Real Housewives of New Jersey. It seems to me that because Staub is such a spectacular, paranoid trainwreck, Bravo has decided to basically open up the floodgates and see what they get when they put pressure on her. And she always rises to the occasion. In terms of generally alarming behavior captured on film, they’ve done pretty well for themselves. While every woman did a little something interesting or had some quirks last season, this spring Staub has taken things to a whole new level by inviting the Hell’s Angels and some other shady folks to crash a fundraiser for a baby with cancer, creating new rules for when gay slurs are okay and when they’re not (last time I checked, they were never okay), going on half-cocked party-stalking missions with her children trapped in the backseat of her Range Rover, and giving off-the-wall interviews about how they’re all out to get her**. Everything she does is so far out of proportion it’s both laughable and troubling, since it’s hard to figure out if it’s editing or honesty that makes her seem so dangerously off-the-wall. Meanwhile, the other women have faded into the background, appearing occasionally to say “how ya doin’?” and to have babies and drink bellinis. Or, to stop their grown children from throwing lunch meat around the kitchen.
2. To continue on the last point a bit, this season lacks a clear narrative for each of the women. Even Danielle Staub’s teetering back and forth on the brink of implosion doesn’t actually have any direction. I don’t want to give Bravo too much credit, as I think the Real Housewives franchise is more about voyeurism and gossiping about pretend neighbors than narrative, but last spring each woman was actually working through and discussing issues that were important in her life. To recap:
- Dina was trying to figure out how to manage her design business and her charity, ultimately deciding to put her career on hold in order to spend more time on Project Ladybug and her family
- Caroline was trying to get her daughter to go to beauty school and attempting to manage the lives of everyone around her, as older sisters and moms often do
- Jacqueline was trying to have a baby and get her daughter to graduate high school while dealing with the fact that her family didn’t like one of her friends
- Teresa was building a new house and managing Gia’s acting/modeling/being obnoxious career, all while attempting to anglicize her last name
- Danielle was actually attempting to deal with her past, a really creepy boyfriend, and get her ex-husband to pay child support.
These narratives overlapped and clashed, but they existed. This season it seems as though the four women who aren’t Danielle got smart and decided to play down their emotions and limit access to their lives while the Danielle show marches through Crazyville.
3. The paranoia. Oh, the paranoia.
4. I’m pretty sure Dina is leaving the show next week. Bravo’s teasing that someone is going to leave, and while my instincts tell me that Caroline is the sanest and least impressed by being on television,*** I bet her baby sister is giving up her career on the small screen. While arguably the most likable Housewife, Dina is also the one who has the most limitations placed on access to her personal life. Also, she just seems to be over it.
5. The self-promotion is getting a little out-of-hand. Time and television experience has told us that you cannot launch your child’s career through a reality show (see Hogan Knows Best for details). Also, if you name your cookbook Skinny Italian, I’m probably not interested, as my waistline is the last thing I’m thinking about when I sit down to a plate of baked ziti. If I wanted obvious plugs in my television diet, I would initiate an aggressive letter-writing campaign to Donald Trump asking him to rush production of another season of The Celebrity Apprentice.
6. This is the big one. Throughout this season, I have been wondering what, exactly, Bravo’s motives are in airing, publicizing, and editing The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I understand New Jersey jokes, and this doesn’t come from a place that’s super sensitive when the Garden State is the butt of the joke. But to me, this season has been mocking the Housewives in a way that I’m a little uncomfortable with. Yes, they’re not exactly representative of everyone in the state, and in some ways they embody some stereotypes, but it seems to me that Bravo is snickering at them even as they’re also endorsing their behavior. Maybe it’s because this season’s promos were completely focused on Teresa Giudice flipping a table and that somehow being “Jersey.” Maybe it’s because there’s a clear agenda to make this show seem like a real-life parallel of The Sopranos, or, at the very least, to tap into some of that sweet Sopranos juice. But there’s something here that makes me think that Bravo finds the brand of Housewife ridiculous that these women bring to the table amusing in a different way than they do when we’re focused on New York, Orange County, and Atlanta. And I’m not sure I’m down with it. Fine, create mob innuendo. Show a nine year-old having trouble understanding that to make in it showbiz, you need to develop a General American accent. You know what, let’s see Chris Laurita’s gun cabinet again and ponder why he has heavy artillery in Franklin Lakes and in a house with small children. But if that’s the only reason Bravo’s in town – to find these moments and to say to the rest of America, “Hey, check out how Jersey’s living up to our expectations!” – then we have a problem.
Will I stop watching? No, probably not. I’m not one of those people who gets all angry about television that features people with no discernible talent. Plus, my TiVo has a season pass. But I do like when I know what I’m seeing, why I’m seeing it, and I’m given a reason to care. And aside from the commentary it’s providing me on the human condition as I watch it revealed on the screen and ponder myself as a viewer, The Real Housewives of New Jersey is falling short. Maybe when Ashley pulls Danielle’s weave and charges are filed, all will be made clear to me.
* In reality, there are multiple New Jersey accents. First, not everyone’s accent is very pronounced. That said, while North Jerseyans tend to have a more stereotypical accent, South Jerseyans are a whole other linguistic ball game. Their “o”s are different from North Jersey “o”s. While this is not high on the list of issues that divides these regions, it’s significant nonetheless. Especially if you go to college and develop an accent that incorporates all the vowel sounds of the state. Not that I know anything about that.
** In this instance, “they” doesn’t exactly mean they other Housewives, though I include them in that group. Staub’s interviews about who’s out to get her tend to cast a wide net.
***In this case, it means very, very little that I think this. To me, Caroline comes off as having the lowest tolerance for nonsense. On the other hand, she’s on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, which is nonsense.