"If you're looking for a real representation of New York, this is us," says real estate agent and native New Yorker Erin Lichy in the first five minutes of the new season of The Real Housewives of New York City. Season 14 of Bravo's long-running Housewives installment is a conscious rebirth for the show. After bottoming out with the waning years of original cast members Ramona Singer and Luann de Lesseps, and the disastrous (through no fault of her own) introduction of the show's first Black cast member in Eboni K. Williams, Bravo rebooted the entire cast. Erin is one of six brand new cast members who, beyond the fact that they look closer to a cross-section of NYC's multi-racial population, are hoping to bring some of the fun and intrigue into a series whose mood had gotten too dark to continue.
The Season 14 premiere, "New Era, New York," got things off to a good start, with a group of women who seem like actual friends, who do things together, get on each other's nerves, admire some things about each other, and make backhanded comments about the rest. In other words, it's a cast of Real Housewives. And while it might not sound all that thrilling to say that the central drama in this first episode revolves around cheese — so, so, SO many B-roll shots of cheese! — it's actually encouraging that this group of women can take a misunderstanding about cheese and turn into an hour's worth of talking heads about why Brynn is a liar, Sai is too cool for her own good sometimes, and Erin has a problem with everyone. All that plus the group (minus Erin) sh*t-talking a certain NYC restaurant so badly that Bravo had to bleep out the name, and Jenna Lyons bringing dom top energy to RHONY in ways that Bethenny Frankel could only dream of.
When it comes to first impressions of the Housewives, it's natural to compare and contrast. The Real Housewives has always been an unspoken competition for social supremacy. From a viewer's perspective, a good Real Housewife has to be watchable, have a good sense of humor (or such a terrible sense of humor that you laugh
It's no surprise that Jenna emerges as the most TV-friendly of the new batch of Housewives, at least to start. The former creative director of J. Crew, whose signature sense of style has reached everyone from Michelle Obama to your cool aunt, already had a show on Max for one hot season. But it's more than just Lyons' résumé that puts her at the top of the heap. With her oversized glasses and towering frame, Lyons strikes the pose of an icon, and her castmates are all responding to her in kind. The other women all seem to be crushing on her for one reason or another — her status, her money, her vibe. In the parlance of Jenna's sex-intensive icebreaker game that they play at her "Girls Night In," Jenna is the dominant top of this group.
And yet despite her status, Jenna comes across more quirky than haughty. There isn't a Countess Luann energy there, or even Bethenny's Mamet-esque always-be-closing energy. She's not self-consciously faux-humble, she's genuinely unusual. In the language of RHONY, she plays like a cross between Carole Radziwill's unimpressed frankness and Sonja Morgan's sex drive and unconventional living space (of Jenna's SoHo loft, Erin says her bedroom is 50% closet, and her apartment is 50% bedroom).
Cold-opening the season with a smile, calling the other women bitches and whores "...but great moms," Brynn has all the breakout potential in the world as RHONY's new agent of chaos. She has Leah McSweeney's instincts to ruffle feathers without her runaway-train aggro energy. In just this first episode, Brynn stretches the truth of a comment Sai made in order to provoke conflict with Erin (who seems highly provokable, but we'll get to that in a second). In an interview clip, she makes a passive-aggressive dig at Jessel's kids for being unruly little monsters, which is A) mean but funny, a perfect Housewives combo, and B) the kind of sh*t-talking that, if continued, will bear confrontational fruit at the reunion and beyond.
To her credit, after three-quarters of an episode throwing shade at Erin for a comment about cheese that Brynn seems to have entirely invented, Brynn easily buries the hatchet with Erin (for now), and they have a fun little moment raiding Jenna's closet. She's a sh*t-stirrer with a million-dollar smile, which will make some people hate her and other people delight in her audacity. There's a lot of promise in Brynn.
At one point in the premiere, Sai wonders whether the fact that Erin finds herself in the middle of most of the fights in the group means Erin is usually the problem. She might be! The Type-A real estate agent definitely seems like she's going to be the locus of a lot of drama because she talks all the time, has an opinion about everything, and doesn't have a ton of patience.
She's shown a willingness to be fun, though. Trying on Jenna's clothes with Brynn was the good kind of silly, as was her assessment of Jenna being weird because she hates dill but loves parsley(??). The best thing about Erin in the premiere is her ability to take social situations intensely personally. Brynn and Sai ditching a group dinner at The Restaurant Which Must Not Be Named But Which Was Popular Among D-List Models in 2005 for Casa Cipriani was more than just a social faux pas, it was a sign of disrespect towards Erin. That's the energy that will continue to pay off all season.
We've come a long way from Alex McCord in her crumbling townhouse in Brooklyn, trying to make it in this economy. Sai is giving deep Brooklyn cool from her enviable multi-level brownstone. Sai is succeeding with her lifestyle brand (of course), her kids are adorable and well-behaved, and her husband knows to knock before entering the bathroom. (More good news: husbands are back on RHONY for the first time in a while!) Sai has that perfect Housewives combo of seeming too cool to want to engage in drama before immediately engaging in drama.
She's more than willing to pick up the ball from Brynn when the latter tries to egg Sai into an argument with Erin while also vehemently denying that she hates cheese. Sai is also aggressively snobby about whatever this passé restaurant is. That kind of snobbishness can certainly play well on a show that launched Countess Luann de Lesseps, but Sai's gonna want to avoid overplaying that hand. It's also probably worth noting that, judging by this episode at least, Sai seems the least likely to be intimidated by Jenna should a conflict arise.
The Somalian model is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful Real Housewife… ever? She's certainly in the discussion. She's also, thus far, the one we know the least about. That's probably because she spent the bulk of the first episode as a sounding board for Erin's voluminous list of grievances against Brynn. Ubah's time will come. For now, all we know is that she's really, really into bananas, and based on her Bravo.com bio, that she owns her own hot-sauce company, UBAHHOT. Skinnygirl nothing, we want a new UBAHHOT storyline every single week.
It's a good sign for this new RHONY cast that the bottom rung of this ladder is still a pretty unobjectionable Housewife. Jessel isn't unbearable, and she's not excessively boring. She also seems to have a cool mom. (We've missed cool moms on this show since Carole and Tinsley exited!) At the moment, she seems to get along with everybody, which can be a valuable role on a Housewives season. But it can also just as easily transition into the wishy-washy role. Let's hope Jessel has some backbone, and she starts showing it as the season rolls on.
The Real Housewives of New York City airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET and streams next day on Peacock. 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.