Bravo's Real Housewives franchise has become an ecosystem unto itself over the years, one populated by reunions, gossip items, breakdown podcasts, blog posts from the Housewives themselves, and at least one BravoCon. And yet when it comes to the shows themselves, we've gotten so used to the formulaic structure of the seasons and a viewing experience that presents only a fraction of this ecosystem. Which is why Peacock's spinoff series Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip has served as a somewhat shocking creative leap for the franchise.
Under the guise of what could easily have been a tossed-off all-stars excursion, Girls Trip has completely shaken up the show's format and opened the barn doors to a stampede of metatextual, behind-the-scenes conversation about what these women are almost always actually arguing about: the workplace friction of being on a successful reality TV show. With the first season now completed, it's worth reflecting on what exactly made this mini-season so good.
The wildest thing about The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip is that everyone expected this season to be a flop. Advance word was that the first season — which stars Kyle Richards (Beverly Hills), LuAnn DeLesseps and Ramona Singer (NYC), Teresa Giudice and Melissa Gorga (New Jersey), and Kenya Moore and Cynthia Bailey (Atlanta) — was low energy and not that dramatic, while the second season, which had already begun taping, was where the real fireworks were. The ironic part is that what's made Ultimate Girls Trip such a success is that it's finally acknowledged that gossip-mill part of its ecosystem.
If you've followed the Housewives for any period of time, you already knew that the franchise -- and the women who star in it -- are just as much a gossip phenomenon as a TV one. This has often worked to Bravo's benefit, drumming up enthusiasm and interest in the women's lives. But just as often, it's meant that the show's major storylines get played out in gossip reports months before they show up on the show. Some of these moments have been unavoidable, especially when dealing with legal troubles for stars like Giudice, Erika Girardi, and Jen Shah, or even high-profile public disasters like the The Real Housewives of New York's "boat ride from hell." But just as often, it's spoilers that emerge from the season about this or that cast member feuding with someone else; someone refusing to film with the others; who got invited on the season's big vacation. Spoilers are a concern for any show, but for The Real Housewives, it can seem like the entire season has aired in the press before it ever makes it to Bravo.
Thrillingly, Ultimate Girls Trip has broken down longstanding fourth walls when it comes to the Housewives and the celebrity universe they inhabit. This happens almost by necessity. With a standard season, the idea is that all of the women in the cast are independently friends and all the drama that arises between them comes organically from their lives as rich women of a certain geographic area. Sometimes that's even been true, at least in the beginning. But by the time any of these shows reaches a second season, by far the biggest driver of storyline is the fact that they are on a successful TV show, they've become celebrities, and they're all reacting to what the others have said either on the show or in blog posts/Watch What Happens Live appearances, et cetera.
Think about Real Housewives of NYC's first real blockbuster storyline, the breakup of Jill and Bethenny's friendship, which was almost entirely borne out of Jill's jealousy over Bethenny getting a spinoff show and Jill's subsequent attempts to rally the other women not to tape with Bethenny. None of this was mentioned on the show, and thus a huge part of the show's biggest storyline was absent.
This isn't really possible on an all-stars vacation season. There's no way to explain why Ramona, Teresa, and Kenya are all on the same vacation together other than to acknowledge that, yes, The Real Housewives is a hugely successful franchise, and its producers have decided to send seven of its most prominent stars out on a vacation for drama. Yes, there are still plenty of things that go down organically — or as organic as it gets for a species of women who've evolved to live their lives with as much camera-friendly dramatics as possible. Ramona and Kenya get into an argument on the plane to Turks and Caicos and pretty much don't stop fighting all trip. Cynthia develops a truly weird attitude towards Kenya. LuAnn decides that blithely accepting Ramona's personality disorder makes her look like a pushover, so she decides to push back. There's some good stuff there.
But by far the most interesting stuff is when the women deal with the business of being Housewives. A day into their trip, a known Housewives gossip account starts Tweeting out details about the vacation, including the plane fight, and the fact that Ramona's antics in selecting a bedroom annoyed everyone else. The women realize that this gossip monger has known ties to Kenya. Is Kenya leaking information? This is the kind of thing that's never really been addressed on the show before. Sure, Lisa Vanderpump was accused of leaking stories to Radar Online, but there was still the veneer that she was doing such things because of real-world concerns like her dog-adoption business and not simply to get one over on her fellow castmates. Here, the gossip machine is acknowledged as unfolding in real time along with the taping of the show, which is how it is in real life. All of which is to say that owning up to the artificiality of these women's lives has suddenly made the entire endeavor feel more real.
In another episode, Teresa and Melissa engage for the 1,000th time on the subject of why Teresa was so angry when Melissa was cast on the show, and since the women are now free to mention things like production and Andy Cohen and the affects of living a life on camera, Teresa's obstainance towards Melissa felt more sympathetic. Teresa knew what being on The Real Housewives does to family relationships, and she didn't want that for herself and her brother and sister-in-law. Sure, Teresa's usually 50% full of crap, but allowing her to acknowledge the full surreality of her life at least makes her more understandable.
This newfound transparency in Ultimate Girls Trip also feels very on trend for what's happening with the veteran reality shows. The Real World came back around with its Homecoming seasons this year on Paramount+, reunions that thus far have largely focused on the meta aspects of being on a TV phenomenon and how that affected the stars of the show. For its part, Survivor returned from its COVID-imposed hiatus a new show, one that was freer with acknowledging its own production as its happening, as well as casting contestants who speak openly about the role that Survivor the TV show has played in their lives.
Even while featuring cast members with a combined 80 seasons on their respective shows, Ultimate Girls Trip has felt fresher than any Housewives installment in years. And season two promises to be even better, with a cast of former Housewives with a history of conflict, including Taylor Armstrong and Brandi Glanville (Beverly Hills), Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Judge (Orange County), Phaedra Parks and Eva Marcille (Atlanta), and from New York City, Jill Zarin and Dorinda Medley, whose notorious Berkshires home will be the setting for the vacation. Buckle up.
The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip is now streaming on Peacock.
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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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.