"What happened to class? Elegance?" Ramona Singer asks in preview for tonight's Season 13 premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City. "Elegance and class: where did it all go?" The likely unintentional Chicago reference is played for irony, as it punctuates multiple scenes of the Housewives drunkenly laughing, fighting, and even painting a nude model. It's a nice encapsulation of the central tension of RHONY: status-obsessed women behaving badly on reality television.
And for quite some time, that was enough to make RHONY the crown jewel of Bravo's reality empire. While Real Housewives of Atlanta drew the biggest ratings (and, its fans would argue, the biggest drama), RHONY earned the most plaudits from media types and Bravo-heads. Developments like Luann de Lesseps getting arrested and Bethenny Frankel leaving the show were covered as major news, and RHONY's new seasons were greeted with breathless excitement.
Yet for several reasons, this lead-up to this season of RHONY hasn't inspired the same level of enthusiasm. For one, Season 12 wasn't a strong installment, with too many repetitive drunken antics and the high-profile departures of both Frankel at the start of the season and Tinsley Mortimer halfway through. Leah McSweeney was a popular addition, but soon she too fell into a familiar pattern with the other women, only finally snapping out of it to call out Singer for her too-casual treatment of COVID-19 in the reunion episodes.
Meanwhile, the often tone-deaf (and sometimes outright racist) actions of many of the longest-tenured cast members has started to take its toll. While fans by and large just rolled their eyes when de Lesseps dressed up in Blackface in 2017 for a Diana Ross costume (far too casual a reaction in retrospect), Singer's "All Lives Matter" Instagram comment inspired a much more fervent backlash last year. With its hesitance to really shake up its cast in recent seasons — Singer, de Lesseps, and Sonja Morgan have each logged more than ten seasons on the show — change has been slow to come to RHONY. Contrast that with new Bravo darling The Real Housewives of Potomac, or the breakout success of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City: those shows feel like they offer a path forward for the franchise, while RHONY in many ways feels like its past.
To be fair, it does seem producers are trying to change things, albeit slowly. The addition of Eboni K. Williams as RHONY's first Black Housewife is a promising sign. Moreover, Williams seems to explicitly reject the idea that she's supposed to teach the other women how to act. "I'm not Toni Morrison in this bitch, I can't be teaching y'all everything," she says in the trailer. In a recent New York Magazine piece, Williams expanded further on the topic, calling it "a fool's errand" to try and change her fellow Housewives. "It's really never me saying, 'Oh, let me have this conversation with Ramona so I can get her to understand Black Lives Matter.' That is not my fucking job. Bravo didn't pay me for that."
How well Williams works as a Housewife both on the show and with this group remains to be seen, although Singer's response to Williams asserting her point in the trailer by saying, "Oh my god, my ears are hurting" isn't a great sign. (Singer's best friend is Morgan, who often speaks at a 12 on a 10-point volume dial, so Williams' ever-so-slightly raised voice shouldn't be an issue for her.) Still, Williams' casting is a first step; just as it's not her job to educate her fellow Housewives, it's also not her job to fix everything that doesn't work about RHONY.
Unlike sister show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which is set to debut in just two weeks, RHONY doesn't have a massive, news-making scandal to stir up interest. Sure, rumor has it that former Housewife Heather Thomson (who was to appear this season in a recurring capacity as a Friend of the Housewives) stopped taping at a certain point after a fight with McSweeney, but this season is largely going to have to stand on its own, as it reckons with what exactly RHONY should look like in 2021.
None of this is to say that the show's survival is in on the line. For one, RHONY's ratings have never been top of the Bravo heap — they've just been consistent over the years. And Bravo-heads will likely always have a soft spot for this cast in a way they don't for, say, The Real Housewives of Orange County. Still, unless it manages to reinvent itself a bit for modern times, it seems unlikely that RHONY can maintain its place as the franchise's crown jewel.
The Real Housewives of New York City returns for its thirteenth season on Bravo May 4th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.