Sonja Morgan and Luann de Lesseps don’t exactly fit in at the Barn Bar in Benton, Illinois. With their high glam and penchant for putting on a show wherever they go, the Real Housewives of New York City stars decidedly stand out among the group of rugged, mud-loving men inside the local watering hole.
The stark contrast is part of the gimmick behind Bravo’s new reality series, Luann & Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake. Channeling the spirit of The Simple Life, these rich women go to a small town in order to experience a different way of living and get their hands dirty in the process. Two episodes in, the pair is already seeing the benefit of surrounding themselves with down-to-earth folks instead of self-involved New Yorkers.
“The people are cool and really authentic,” Luann says of the Barn Bar crowd, “which is different from what I’m used to.”
Whether or not Luann meant to intentionally insult any of her RHONY castmates with the observation, it feels like a pointed jab all the same. And who could blame her? Everyone was on their worst behavior during Season 13 of the series, with Sonja and Luann’s BFF Ramona Singer at the root of all the tension. Ramona’s alleged racist behavior (along with many micro- and macro-aggressions captured on the show) is one of the main reasons that Bravo decided to recast the show for Season 14 — the network even opted to skip the Season 13 reunion to look into the allegations.
But even beyond her more objectionable behavior, Ramona spent much of the season ridiculing, controlling, and enabling her supposed closest friends. Her mere presence caused Sonja and Luann to go on the defense, leaving little room for the duo’s shenanigans, like their time partying with pirates in St. Barts or peeing in upstate New York cornfields. The two have their own tiffs here and there, but have always worked through it with a hug and a laugh, even when Ramona tried her best to keep them apart.
All three are slated to return for Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip Season 5, which at this point feels like Ramona’s last shot for redemption. But throughout Season 13 she made it clear she has no intention to learn, grow, or apologize for anything she’s done. And those high stakes will make it even more difficult for Sonja and Luann to embrace the good-time gal spirit that made them shine in the series. Ramona would hang like a dark cloud over any iteration of RHONY, even if she wasn’t in it.
She, it seemed, ruined the fun for everyone. But Bravo wasn’t ready to let Sonja and Luann go so easily, and instead created a workaround to give them the space to be their fun-loving, ultra-friendly, super-horny selves with Welcome to Crappie Lake. Taking the duo out of their comfort zone not only created a setup for an endlessly entertaining fish-out-of-water narrative, but also eliminated any immediate associations with the disastrous last season of RHONY and their relationships with any members of the cast. Ramona who? Sonja and Luann’s new BFF is Benton mayor Jeff Kondritz, and he’s the supportive and encouraging presence these women need to be their best selves.
This isn’t just a recreational girl’s trip — Sonja and Luann have come to Benton to help revitalize the town after it suffered major losses during COVID. In Episode 1, “Welcome to Crappie Lake,” they’re given a specific list of things they must help with during their five-week stay: build a park, help with a Christmas in July celebration, increase tourism, upgrade the animal shelter, and put together an end of the summer performance. They’re not just reality stars angling for a storyline, they’re humanitarians, and if they happen to go out to party and hit on a few firemen in the process, so be it.
Sonja and Luann aren’t perfect, of course. They’ve shown over the years that they can have just as many moments of ignorance and displays of extreme privilege as Ramona and every other Bravo housewife for that matter. But the entire concept of Welcome to Crappie Lake is built around them embracing that ignorance, being in on the joke that their very presence in this town is as disruptive as it is helpful. And unlike Ramona, they’re proving that they’re willing to learn and maybe even grow as people through this experience.
Yes, Sonja and Luann show up overdressed and underprepared for almost every task they’ve taken on so far. But they’re friendly to everyone they meet and incredibly game to look like a fool — their first real experience in Benton is jumping into the town’s titular lake to “noodle,” hunting for catfishing using only their hands. They (mostly) maintain their cool when their car doesn’t have AC in 90-degree heat and their motel closets are too small for even their tiniest bags. And they universally celebrate everyone who comes out to audition for their end-of-the-summer variety show, even if they don’t quite understand the Saw-inspired interpretive dance number.
In Benton, Illinois, Sonja and Luann can be as uninhabited as they please. Luann playfully grabs a fireman’s hat and puts it on while visiting the station, then later coquettishly leads a man across the bar by pulling his very long, very gray, braided goatee. Sonja finds a Rascal scooter and speeds around the town’s civic center without worrying about keeping her undies covered and openly farts in front of her fellow noodlers. The gimmick may get old eventually, but at least for now it’s allowing Sonja and Luann to be themselves far from the watchful eye of their embattled bestie. Ramona wouldn’t be caught dead in Benton, Illinois, and thank god for that.
Luann & Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake airs Sundays at 10 PM ET on Bravo and streams on Peacock the next day. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.