For the past few seasons, Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has banked on one blockbuster storyline to carry it through the entire year. In Season 9, it was the downfall of Lisa Vanderpump via a winding road of lies and setups that all traced back to a doggie adoption gone south. Last season, it was the downfall of Denise Richards, who stonewalled all efforts by the other women to put her on blast for, among other things, allegedly sleeping with former Housewive Brandi Glanville. This season … it might be the downfall of Erika Girardi, a.k.a. Erika Jayne, the blunt, aggro-fabulous housewife/pop star who's been a sensation and fan favorite since she debuted in season 6. At least that's the sense we get from the season-long super-teaser that kicks off Season 11. Usually these shows save the super-teasers for the end of the premiere episode, so the fact that this is how RHOBH is welcoming the audience to the season tells you a lot about the master plan.
It makes sense, in a few ways, to frame these seasons around one big storyline. For one thing, between social media, gossip sites, and boots-on-the-ground reports from gawkers, we end up finding out a LOT about what goes on during filming. Major storylines like Lisa Vanderpump and Denise Richards refusing to film with the other women end up being widely known by the show's most dedicated viewers. In the case of Erika, the news of her impending divorce from lawyer Tom Girardi, as well as the fact that Girardi is being sued for professional misconduct and misappropriation of funds, was splashed all over the New York Times. In a world where it's news when Kim Richards' dog bites someone, there was no way RHOBH could slow-play Erika's divorce. So instead the season kicks off with a teaser that plays like a series of flash-forwards — to the other women questioning what Erika knew and when she knew it, and Erika fighting back in her typically spiky way. Then we downshift into the "present" timeline in the season premiere, with Erika's divorce announcement still to come and the Beverly Hills housewives dealing with new homes, new noses, a new cast member, and the new normal of COVID-19.
Much like the other limbs of the Real Housewives franchise, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to exist merely in the past or at best in the margins of the show itself. Clearly, this is a decision on the production's part to keep the reality of masks and social distancing and closed businesses and vaccines far away from their escapist entertainment. It's definitely a choice, and one decidedly different from other Bravo shows like Top Chef and even Summer House, both of which were pretty above-board with regard to how they were able to isolate the casts and go through protocols to keep everybody safe. Clearly the Housewives want to allow their audience to forget the pandemic as much as possible while they watch the show; whether that actually works or, instead makes the viewer watch the entire endeavor on high-anxiety tenterhooks over just how irresponsible this all seems is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless, when the whole gang arrives at Dorit's house for a "barbecue" (none of these women have ever been able to pull off a convincing barbecue), it's masks off within two feet of the door and we never really mention them again. (Kyle Richards, Kathy Hilton and Dorit Kemsley are areported to have all tested positive later in the season's production.)
The premiere episode is a typical Housewives affair of catching up with what changes everybody's made in the offseason. Kyle Richards broke her nose and was afforded the very convenient opportunity to get a nose job. Sutton Stracke, promoted this year to full-fledged cast member, is between mansions at the moment and so is renting out Kyle's old place in Bel Air. Dorit Kemsley is riding around town in her new $275,000 sports car and — in one of the few nods to pandemic life — talking about how easy it was to deal with being quarantined, before we're treated to the footage of the woman she pays to home-school her kids in their in-home classroom.
We're also treated to brand new housewife Crystal Minkoff, whose husband, we are reminded early and often, was one of the directors of The Lion King (the original one from 1994, not the new, worse one). Crystal is put through the usual new-housewife paces, which include a sit-down with Kyle, the class ambassador, and a few interview clips where she throws shade at the other women's "loud" fashions and trying to look young when they are old. Crystal comes to the group as a friend of Kyle's sister, Kathy Hilton, who has long been a spoken-of-but-never-seen presence on the show. Kathy's occasional estrangements from Kyle were often reported to be because she disapproved of Kyle putting their family business out on television for all to see, so I guess we can assume she's either had a change of heart or thinks she's found a way to be on TV without revealing too much about herself. What she does reveal is a positively odd story from her childhood about doing dental work on the neighborhood kids. She also refers to Dorit as "Dorrit" (rhymes with "snore it"). On the spectrum from eager-to-please Kyle Richards to fragile bird Kim Richards, Kathy seems to be sitting in the oblivious and awkward middle.
Even with Denise Richards gone from the cast, the wounds of last season still feel fresh, particularly when it comes to second-season housewife Garcelle Beauvais. Garcelle was often the only housewife sticking up for Denise last season, and she's clearly still got a bad taste in her mouth from how Denise was treated, particularly by her longtime friend Lisa Rinna. Garcelle and Lisa's sit-down is the premiere episode's big conflict driver, and while Lisa, in her signature style, attempts to navigate the choppy waters of Lake Garcelle by "owning" her behavior (she calls herself out as behaving like a c-word) and laying herself at Garcelle's mercy. Garcelle, for her part, agrees to a kind of probationary period with Lisa, even though she still doesn't trust her even a little bit, which, given the show's history, is probably wise. Lisa, for her part, seems to think she's smoothed everything over quite successfully.
As for the season's presumed main character, Erika starts things off slowly. She talks about how COVID-19 shut down Broadway just as she was rounding into the home stretch of her run in Chicago. She tells the women that it was basically her and Tom in quarantine and no one else. We don't even get to see what she thinks of Crystal, and usually Erika's opinion of a new housewife is a prerequisite. The calm surface waters belie a choppy next few months for Erika on the show, and how that storyline goes will likely determine how successful this season truly is.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills kicks off its eleventh season on Bravo May 19th at 8:00 PM ET.
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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.