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RHOBH at 10: How the Once-Great Series Lost its Way

(And how it can engineer a come back.)
  • Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo
    Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo

    Ten years ago today — October 14, 2010 — The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills premiered on Bravo, the sixth installment of the franchise whose name it bears.

    Remarkably, it would only be a month into the series' run that Kyle Richards would utter the now-iconic line, "You're such a fucking liar, Camille!" That moment, in which Kyle accused Kelsey Grammer's then-wife Camille Grammer of fabricating a conversation, was a shake-the-table moment, defining a conflict between the two women that would carry through the rest of the season.

    Just four episodes later, in a franchise-best installment called "The Dinner Party From Hell," their battle would escalate, with each woman bringing in ground support. For Camille, it was professional psychic Alison DuBuois; for Kyle, it was Nicole Brown Simpson's former friend, "the morally corrupt Faye Resnick" (as Camille would dub her). The episode was an epic all its own, full of quotable lines ("He will never emotionally fulfill you, know that") and complicated interpersonal dynamics. It represented The Real Housewives at its best: a dramedy of manners and intrigue in which the stars, a group of wealthy women living in Los Angeles, fought intense duels over perceived slights. It was theatre, it was camp, and it was glorious.

    Fast-forward to another dinner outing, this time in this most recent season of Beverly Hills, in which actress Denise Richards is questioned about talking shit about her co-stars to former Housewife Brandi Glanville. Denise denies it, but no one believes her. She's been at odds with the cast, including and especially Kyle, for most of the season. But the energy is wildly different from the Camille vs. Kyle brawls of the past. Everyone seems anxious, tired, and self-conscious.

    When Kyle's friend Teddi Mellencamp drops a bomb — that Brandi claims she and Denise had sex — it's not a fun, dishy moment. It causes Denise to spiral about the potential real-world consequences of this. Teddi defends it being said on camera because Brandi already said it on camera. Denise begs Bravo not to include the footage, while sitting right there at the dinner table. It's a miserable scene, and it landed with a spectacular thud after months of hype.

    For much of its first five seasons, RHOBH was Real Housewives at its very best. The women had commanding wealth, Hollywood connections, and entertaining beef. In contrast, the Beverly Hills Housewives of today are either uninterested in drama (Erika Jayne), faced with incessant questions about their financial status (Dorit Kemsley), aren't available enough to really engage with the series (Garcelle Beauvais), or, worst of all: far too aware of the cameras to really be themselves.

    This is a problem that manifests in different ways, depending on the cast member. Denise, who was very open about sex and sexuality in her first season, clearly wanted to tamp down for the second season for fear of her kids seeing or hearing it. Lisa Rinna, a six-season veteran of the franchise, plays up conflict even with close friends for entertainment. And Kyle, the only remaining original cast member, seems to have made it her raison d'etre to express frustration whenever someone doesn't want to play by the rules of the show.

    Some have made the argument that the problem with modern-day RHOBH is that it's gotten too personal. Dishing about someone talking behind the other women's backs is one thing; outing someone is something else entirely. Then again, Season 2 of RHOBH largely revolved around abuse allegations against one husband, Russell Armstrong, that his then-wife Taylor Armstrong had to fend off. Russell killed himself between filming and the show's airing, making the entire season a dark affair. There were questions about whether the season should even air considering the circumstances. Nonetheless, it aired, and is now considered one of the best Real Housewives seasons ever. (Likewise, there was an attempted outing of Kandi Burruss of The Real Housewives of Atlanta in 2017, in that show's ninth season, and that season is also heralded as one of the best ever.)

    Another argument is that as the show added actresses like Rinna, Denise, and Eileen Davidson to the cast, its soap opera-esque drama reached unsustainable heights.

    I personally think the biggest issue with the show in its current iteration is the cast's constant awareness of the camera. Erika shies away from drama because she doesn't want to damage her career as a pop star. Rinna feels an obligation to keep things spicy, as per her brand-defining "own it!" mantra. Dorit wants to project wealth. Kyle wants to keep her spot as the queen of the castle. And when a Housewife can't keep up, they're either fired (Teddi) or leave the show (Denise).

    I've left Garcelle out of this, because I think she and friend-of-the-Housewives Sutton Stracke are the potential future of the series. Garcelle wasn't around much for of Season 10, but when she was, she managed to both mix it up with the other women and stay grounded personally. Sutton unfortunately had to take a demotion because her ex-husband wouldn't allow their kids to be shown (Brandi dealt with a similar issue when she was a Housewife). But when Sutton was around, she too was a saving grace, bringing the kind of petty drama the show has sorely missed.

    While their castmates always seem to be looking over their shoulder at the camera, Garcelle and Sutton remind us of what worked about RHOBH from the start: done right, and with enough investment from the cast, it can be a messy, fun affair.

    Will real life still interfere? Absolutely. It always has, sometimes in disastrous, life-shattering ways. But what the show did so well from the start — and what it can hopefully do well again — was take viewers along for the ride. Moving forward, here's hoping Real Housewives of Beverly Hills can find some new players willing to fully commit to that realness . Until then, we'll always have "The Dinner Party From Hell."

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    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Bravo, Denise Richards, Erika Girardi, Garcelle Beauvais, Kyle Richards, Lisa Rinna, Reality TV