There is a $200,000 cash prize to be won on House of Villains, but that's not what this show is about. E!'s new reality series has gathered 10 villains from popular reality TV shows — classic aughts reality veterans like Survivor's Jonny Fairplay and Tiffany "New York" Pollard; newer villains like Shake Chatterjee from Love Is Blind and Jax Taylor from Vanderpump Rules — and while the show is structured as a competition, it’s closer to a pageant. House of Villains is a drag ball where the category is "extreme reality TV villain," and some of the contestants are better equipped to compete than others.
All 10 of these villains are creatures of reality TV, studied in its rhythms and requirements. Reality TV doesn't need to be "fake" or "scripted" for people to play certain parts, and our villains have been rewarded with air time and notoriety for their on-screen behavior. Whether being on TV merely enhanced their bad behavior or if it created a monster is a chicken-and-egg situation. What we know with House of Villains is that there is no longer any disincentive to being the bad guy for these people. But from the looks of the series premiere, it seems clear that some of these villains are playing very different games than the others.
Take Jax, who mentions on multiple occasions how much he wants and needs to win the money to support his wife and daughter back home. Tanisha Thomas — famous for the first season of The Bad Girls Club back in 2006 and who seems to have evolved into a normal, chill adult in the ensuing 17 years — also mentions having a child and wanting to win to support them. Jax and Tanisha are surely not the only ones with families to support and money on their minds, but they seem to share a kind of tunnel vision that would serve them well if they were on a show that's all about the competitions.
But this isn't that show. If the first episode, “Welcome to the House of Villains,” is any indication, this is a show that barely cares about the competition. Host Joel McHale's couldn’t-give-a-sh*t shrugs as host are a big clue. So is the indifferent challenge design, which has each player guarding a corresponding giant plastic ball that the others are trying to knock out, and which ends up rewarding the players who don't really play all that hard.
But since House of Villains is more like a pageant, one that calls for striking a posture and playing your role, none of that really matters. Each of the contestants are meant to show up and project reality TV villainy in all its forms, as often as they can, for the duration of the series. Some of the contestants understand this on a subconscious level: Tiffany Pollard seems to live her too-fabulous-to-care gimmick all day and all night. She's done it on every show she's ever been on, from Flavor of Love to Big Brother (U.K.) to VH1's underrated Scared Famous. Jonny Fairplay enters the house crowing about the dead grandma lie he told on Survivor 20 years ago, and he's been dining off of that infamy every day since.
But no one shows a better, more active understanding of House of Villains as a burlesque of villainy more than Omarosa Manigault Newman. The show saves her entrance for last, because producers know the reputation that precedes her: she's been the vocal, delusional, obstinate, confrontational bad guy on multiple seasons of The Apprentice, The Surreal Life, and American and Australian celebrity seasons of Big Brother, not to mention her decision to work to get Donald Trump elected president.
Upon entering the Villains house, Omarosa begins playing her part without any regard for restraint or subtlety. She greets Jonny Fairplay, her ally in old-school reality TV, like he's her henchman (glad to see they're on good terms after their face-off in Primetimer's Reality TV Villains bracket). She makes a Cosa Nostra-worthy offer of alliance to Love Is Blind's Shake, who asks for a few hours to think about it (Omarosa nominates him for elimination by the end of the episode for his insolence). When The Bachelor's Corinne Olympios approaches Omarosa and asks for her name, Omarosa spots her chance to target a weaker player and play up her villainous persona. She haughtily suggests Corinne can Google her if she doesn't know her name, which sends Corinne into a tailspin of frustrated anger.
If this were a traditional game, with competitions and winners and such, Omarosa would be playing incredibly poorly. Alienating Corinne for no reason doesn't help her game. "The first to cry is the first to fry," Omarosa insists to Tiffany, "you know the rules of reality TV!" But that's never been a rule of reality TV, and she manages to make an enemy of Tiffany simply because Tiffany likes her roommate Corinne. Giving Shake the "offer you shouldn't refuse" isn't smart game play either, nor is it smart later on to head-fake Johnny Bananas like she's going to nominate him (going back on a deal they'd made earlier). Such a move only serves to give Bananas a reminder that she could betray him at any time. But she does it for the same reason she regally takes an extra beat before sitting on the designated supervillain-of-the-week throne: because she is Omarosa, Queen of the Villains.
Johnny Bananas spent all episode talking about people he'd like to "work with" like he's still on The Challenge, but he's completely wrong about what this show is. It's not The Challenge. It's closer in spirit to Bananas' original show The Real World, which, by the time he was on it, was about throwing clashing personalities into a house and waiting for them to clash or have sex with each other or both.
This isn't Omarosa's first rodeo. It's not even Omarosa's first House of Villains, after spending all that time in the Trump White House. Her status as an actual, real-world villain makes it hard to luxuriate in her wickedness, but credit must be given: Right now, Omarosa is the only one on House of Villains who sees this show for what it is, and that means right now, she's the star.
New episodes of House of Villains air Thursday nights at 10:00 PM ET on E!. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.