It was one of those safes falling on you from a third-story window, a cartoon moment of consciousness-flattening, tweeting bluebirds and epiphany. And it happened as I watched the seven magnificent episodes of The Real Housewives of Orange County, premiering on Bravo this Tuesday.
It happened as I sat glued to the merry adventures of Kim, Jo, Lauri, Vicki and Jeana in one seven-episode marathon.
“Perception is reality,” Bree said on Desperate Housewives—The Real Housewives’ ur-text—just this past Sunday, clearly providing her answer to the Kantian Question, “What are the powers and capacities constitutive of the human subject for apprehending the Real?”
Perception. Image. Get used to it: you may think the world’s view of Orange County depends only on that small segment pictured in the party pages of Riviera, but they are the ones who are real; the rest of us—we who live in Anaheim and Santa Ana instead of Newport and Laguna Beach, who are of color, or at least brunette, instead of entitled blond society misses with pillowy lips at play in the fields of South Coast Plaza, who are poor or middle-class and have as little to do with the charity dos and parties in jewelry stores as the rich have to do with day laboring at Home Depot or shopping at Target—we are Schrödinger’s cat, in a tertiary position between existing and not. Without the world’s eyeballs, the rest of us simply aren’t.
So now, three years into the nation’s love affair with greed and tanned young idiots—The O.C., Orange County (the movie), Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, even the parodic Arrested Development—who are our newest spokesmodels?
The Real Housewives introduce us.
There’s Kimberly, the outgoing transplant who—even while making sure we knew she was above all that silliness—dived right into the bleach and implants of her new home.
There’s Jo, the young party girl fiancée of Hummer-driving Slade—think DH’s Gabrielle sans the calculation and if she ever smiled or was kind.
There’s Lauri, the divorcée who no longer has the lifestyle of her friends.
There’s Vicki, for whom Lauri works selling insurance, and who is both self-made and a terrible control freak.
There is Jeana, a plump former Playmate who sells real estate and gives homespun advice in a flat, affectless voice.
There are various husbands. There are misbegotten spawn. And there is the hive, its own organism, where they all (except Lauri) live: the rarefied hills of Coto de Caza.
Coto de Caza is the ne plus ultra Orange County—an actual gated town. But unlike the swarming developments spreading across the rest of South County, the manses of Coto were actually developed gracefully, nestled into folds in the hills so nothing mars the ridgelines or the sky. Most of the mansions actually have breathing room—an acre here, an acre there—instead of million-dollar homes built within inches of their lot lines. These are proper mansions, nothing Mc- or chintzy about them. And behind its gates, Coto even still has an orange grove. Coto’s a pretty sweet place to live, if you like marble, and beige, and children driving brand-new Mercedes.
And if you, like I, like to watch rich people behaving badly—and is there any other explanation for the popularity of Donald Trump?—you’ll like Coto just as much.
And you, like I, will realize that these people are the true Orange County, just as J.R. was the soul of Dallas, and Kurt Cobain really was Seattle.
DO NOT READ THIS PART OF THE STORY
The following will be one long, giant spoiler of everything of interest that happens on this season of The Real Housewives of Orange County—and everything that happens is of interest. Every one of you should stop reading immediately.
Episode One: Jeana’s children are monsters! Jeana’s husband is a monster! Jeana (our plump real-estate agent) is no great shakes herself! Jeana’s daughter Kara whines soulfully when her older brother Shane gets a new car and she has to drive his hand-me-down convertible Mercedes. Shane grunts angrily when Kara gets cold hard cash for making the volleyball team. Kara demands a new car. Kara gets a new car. Meanwhile, Shane gets drafted by the Oakland A’s in, like, the 1,000th round, and dad Matt Keough, who used to play for the A’s and still works in the organization, calls home to find out how the draft went. Father and son share a monosyllabic conversation. “I think he’s proud of you,” Jeana says, noncommittally, flatly and without affect, after the phone call. “He thought you were going to do a lot worse.”
Kimberly (our outgoing transplant) makes fun of how everyone in OC has breast implants. But Kimberly likes her own breast implants. We call this “cognitive dissonance.”
Slade wants 24-year-old party girl fiancée Jo to stay home and be a housewife. The camera lingers as she sits on the kitchen counter, staring at the phone, wondering what the fuck she’s going to do with her day.
Vicki (self-made insurance lady) is a bitch, and Lauri (the broke-ass divorcée who suffers under her) is a victim.
Episode Two: Jeana’s son Shane goes off to kill some bunnies for the neighbors, who are tired of replacing their impatiens. He has an arsenal at his disposal, but it’s a lot of Elmer Fudd for nothing. No rabbits were harmed in the making of this series.
Kim goes to buy a new car. “I don’t care about my car,” she says, not at all shallow like her neighbors, “but in this area . . .” But oh, as the car salesman is showing her all the great places to stow your kids in the SUV, he lets fly with “grandchild,” as in, “Here would be a great place to put your grandchild.” Everything stops for the smallest of most perfect beats. Kim does not buy the car.
Slade, who is a freak, does tai chi in his underwear and what appears to be an ice mask to reduce puffiness before showing us his power outfits for his big meeting. He yammers on about needing to appear wealthy so the dude he’s meeting will know he’s capable of . . . what? Being wealthy? Then he climbs into a Hummer, and I laugh and laugh.
But then he meets with the guy, and the guy is so unbelievably rude I thought it was a put-up job. I mean, no one acts that way. Not even Trump times 10 acts that way. The guy is seriously, seriously damaged—and wait till you meet his wife, who puts cubic zirconia on the pink rims of her monster truck! The wife is really pretty awesome.
Lauri notes, about being rich, “I really miss those things. I’m the maid now.” The observant viewer will note her Mizrahi bedding, which I saw on my shopping sojourn through Target just today. It’s cute—giant orange blossoms, splashy and colorful—but again, if Lauri still had her status, she would only shop at Target for the maid’s bedding. Which, of course, I guess she did.
Vicki’s son Michael is an asshole.
Jeana’s son Shane is an asshole. But let me elaborate: Shane and his little brother Colton, who is 13, are in Mexico with their family and go to some dirt-racing track. Colton stalls his dune buggy thingie a bunch of times—because he is 13—before he gets it right. He then beats Shane’s time on the track. Shane’s only possible recourse is to keep making fun of him for stalling. “It’s my first time driving a stick, Shane!” Colton points out sensibly. “Come on, give me a little credit!” Shane grunts angrily and, like an asshole, says, “The first time I drove a stick, it was a Ferrari.”
Lauri’s daughter Ashley is an asshole, but that doesn’t come till episode four, and I’m tired of recapping the episodes, and I will stop.
Except for this: Lauri’s son Josh actually seems like a sweet kid, so he spends most of the season in juvie. It seemed like the teacher he scuffled with was the asshole, but it was off-camera, so we’ll never really know. In any case—go juvenile justice system!—they kept him doped up in juvenile hall to make sure he didn’t have a mental illness for more than a month before they sentenced him to an additional month because he’d been caught with pot in the past. So when he calls home, all lonely and fucked-up and locked away while big sister Ashley is having a party, she hears his voice and instantly hangs up on him with the same guilty manner with which you hang up if a woman answers when you call her boyfriend. That was my little brother calling from juvenile hall, she tells her friend bemusedly. Should I have talked to him, do you suppose?
A LITERARY INTERLUDE, CITING FITZGERALD
The very rich are different from you and me, Ernest Hemingway said—appropriating the thought, almost to the word, from F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald had said, “Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me,” which, you will notice, is almost just exactly the same!) But Fitzgerald had whole books of thought on the subject, while Hemingway mostly wrote about fish. Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, has probably even been read by the dimwitted offspring of The Real Housewives of Orange County. I wonder what they made of this:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .”
BARBARIANS AT THE GATES
I drove behind the gates of Coto de Caza last week to meet with the women—all except Jeana, who was out of town seeing her asshole son, who’s playing ball at an Arizona community college. The country club where we coffee’d was hushed, even desolate on a rainy morning—the dark woods you would expect, the sweet selection of teas. Framed in the ceiling-high windows behind the women’s heads, the ridgelines of Coto de Caza were perfectly populated—not too many houses, or too few. It still had the natural beauty you’d expect of John Wayne’s old hunting grounds—his actual hunting grounds, not the bars of Balboa.
The women were nice, and ladylike, and funny and outgoing, and they looked far prettier in person than on the telly. Kim had looked manly on the teevee; in person her features were softer and sexy. Lauri had looked plastic, the light and video catching awkwardly on what seemed to be less-than-organic features; at the table at the Coto country club, she was gorgeous. Vicki still looked like a rabbit, but I probably would have found her less rabbity if I had liked her as a person.
Vicki was a trial. She instructed the others not to answer questions about themselves she’d deemed too personal and tried to micromanage everything, from what photos we would be using to how much Kim should talk.
Outgoing Kim was saying something outgoing—perhaps it was after I’d complimented her for going out with her girlfriends and dancing and flirting with little people and people in wheelchairs (I thought that was nice!) and she’d responded outgoingly, “I am very much an equal opportunist!” So naturally Vicki sniped, “Oh, it’s the Kim Show again.” Kim thanked her genuinely for reining her in, said she was well-aware that she often needed it, and apologized sweetly for monopolizing (she wasn’t) the conversation. She begged to hear what Vicki had to say. “Nothing, really,” Vicki answered peevishly. “I don’t really have a piece to say.”
Not only was she schoolmarming Kim, she was treating me as if I were her 18-year-old daughter—the same daughter she tried to browbeat into quitting her job rather than missing a family weekend at their second home (they have four) at the River. To her husband’s credit, he firmly (for him) explained that quitting your job for a weekend’s play is not a good life lesson for a teenager.
My sources also tell me that, after I left, Vicki demanded of the Bravo publicist, who was in attendance with the series producer as we all had coffee and fruit, that Bravo pay for a $150 flower arrangement Vicki had bought for her coffee table in anticipation of a visit from Access Hollywood. As a person who makes a good, decent middle-class living—a living that, if the Real Housewives were making it, they would probably declare bankruptcy—I would like to say that I frequently buy myself flowers because it makes my house look nice. And I have never, not once, demanded someone else pay for them. But maybe that’s how you get four houses.
And here is my reality: I try never to interview anyone, because when they are nice people and I like them, I feel compelled to soften my impressions, to treat them kindly, to present them under a warmish amber light—to mediate their reality for the world. At our group roundtable, I am open to the possibility that the perception is not reality, that someone got a villain edit in the series. After all, if a camera crew were shadowing me, it would show me yelling at my son, ignoring my son, snapping at my son, and watching television for many hours each night as I lie in bed and fart, and it would be both true and untrue.
It would not show me boiling hot dogs for dinner, as some of the Real Housewives are wont to do (perhaps it’s a Midwestern thing?). But none of us is perfect. Most of the women are fun, nice and pretty, though they fall into the categories of either ditzy or ballbusters. They’re warm. And their manners, almost to the person, are the best manners of all: they try to make people feel at home.
So what if their worlds are really, really small, I tell myself. Not everyone likes to dance in conga/protest lines outside white-power shows. Some people like to play tennis and buy their children new cars! And that’s . . .
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Fuck, that’s really not okay.
Those kids are little Hitlers.
Is it the fault of their mothers? Yes. They play them off each other, they reward shrill whining by kowtowing to it, they work all the livelong day to give their children “the best” of everything—diamond shopping here is a bonding experience, like hunting might be among boys and their fathers among the Maori—while their rude, lazy children spit with contempt right in their faces. They have not raised their children to become citizens, but consumers: they are entitled to anything they want.
But while we love to watch bad parenting—Nanny 911, Anna Nicole—softened reality swoops down again. My own sweet son (who is honestly terribly sweet) has not yet reached the age when boys become dicks. Perhaps he will spit at me. Perhaps he will grow up to be an Orange County boy—his life’s goal so far is to own a mansion. He has expensive tastes, loves caviar and aches for golden bling. And while he knows better than to whine around me, I’ve heard tell he’s done so before more receptive audiences. Someday he may even drive a Hummer, if only to give his poor mother a stroke. Maybe then in the world’s eyes he will Exist.