It's been just about a year since we last saw The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and what a year it's been. But while the Jersey wives may be living in pandemic times, you'd barely notice, and given the way the cold open plunges us headlong into a screaming, cursing fight between Teresa and Jackie, it seems that's the way Bravo wants it.
Yes, The Real Housewives of New Jersey is back for Season 11, and they're basically making the promise in the premiere episode that if you stick with them, they'll give you just what you're craving. Namely, big time fights. So what's new, what's not so new, how exactly is the show handling the pandemic, and what leads Jackie and Teresa to get into a season-opening screaming match that has Teresa calling Jackie the c-word no fewer than a dozen times in the span of a minute? Here's your pre-show preview:
Superficially speaking, Margaret has new boobs and Dolores has a butt lift, both of which get their own spotlight segments in the first fifteen minutes. In less lighthearted news, Teresa and Joe Gorga's dad passed away between seasons, and Teresa is having a hard time adjusting to having no living parents. We don't see Joe Gorga reacting to it at all, although from the looks of the supertease for this season, we can expect some pent-up grief and anger to come bubbling over before too long.
Teresa's daughter Gia is off at college in California, and honestly, so much the better for her. She's far enough away that she likely won't be popping in on her mom regularly, which isn't the case with Dolores's son, Frankie, who's stopping by all the time.
Jennifer's big life change is that her father is now living with her, and as we learn in a big family dinner, her mom is… maybe a bit of a nightmare. It's weird to see them all just airing this out on TV, but that's Housewives for you. Meanwhile, Joe Gorga's toxic masculinity — never far from the surface on his best days — seems to be acting up now that his daughter Antonia is starting to see boys socially.
Well, for the third straight season we're dealing with the same six women as main cast members. This is pretty unusual within the Housewives universe, where producers frequently tinker with their casts, adding and subtracting each season to get the alchemy right. RHONJ was an outlier once before, with its Teresa/Jacqueline/Caroline/Melissa/Kathy lineup staying intact for Seasons 3-5. But after the Manzos and Teresa schism'd for good, and Teresa and her husband Joe each endured their prison stints, the show floundered for a bit trying to find a new cast that clicked. They definitely seem to have found it with this group, anchored by Teresa's infamy and volatility, Melissa's ability to consistently gin up drama, Jennifer's crassness, Dolores's steadfast second-banana status (also not new this season: the fact that Dolores appears to be dating both her boyfriend and her ex-husband), and Margaret's raised eyebrow and sense of humor. Then there's Jackie, whose relative un-Jersey-ness always seemed to be a bit out of place among these women, but who's managed to bond with Margaret and Melissa and who consistently gets under Teresa's skin, which is always good for business. It's functional dysfunction, and it really works. As the season begins, some of last season's hostilities (Margaret v. Teresa; Jennifer v. Melissa) seem to have cooled, while others (Jackie v. Jennifer) are in the early stages of healing.
Jackie still seems to be in Teresa's sights because at the premiere's big event — a birthday party for Jackie's husband, Evan — Teresa spreads a rumor she "heard" that Evan's been cheating on Jackie at the gym. She does it in a very Teresa way, playing dumb but making sure everybody hears about it. The rumor snakes through the other women, who are all aghast that Teresa would do such a thing, and then immediately tell the person next to them what they just heard. It's Housewives at its purest, really, right down to a veteran cast member knowing that if there isn't already drama, she needs to start it. This all leads to a massive confrontation at the episode's end, where Jackie proves more than capable at squaring off with Teresa, which bodes well for the season.
Right. The pandemic. Going by the first five minutes after the flash-forward cold open, it seems producers would rather us not think about that. Jackie talks about how she's had to spend so much more time at home lately, but the words "COVID" and "coronavirus" are barely spoken in the episode, and aside from a few verrry brief moments where people are shown in masks, everything seems to be operating at usual. There are outdoor gatherings under a tent, which seems to be the show's nod to safety precautions, but it's still a lot of people in close quarters to each other, maskless and without a care in the world. Characters meet and interact indoors, vacation plans are made — really, for the most part you'd have no idea that this was filmed smack in the middle of a global pandemic while hundreds of thousands of people were dying.
You get the impulse. The Real Housewives has always been escape television first and foremost, and while certain franchises (like Atlanta) have been enhanced by confronting current events, none of the returning shows have seemed all that interested in confronting COVID (or in, you know, staying locked down). Bravo is currently seeing some success with its Summer House cast in a Hamptons bubble, but that option is apparently not available (or not preferable) for the Housewives. And so we get this, a COVID season filmed as if the world was operating as normal. Whether this appeals to viewers as a welcome respite, or stresses them out as they watch unmasked women scream aerosolized droplets at one another, remains to be seen. Either way, the Jersey girls don't seem all that interested in backing down.
The Real Housewives of New Jerseys Season 11 premieres on Bravo February 17th at 9:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.