Once upon a time – I'm guessing during a bright full moon – a production meeting over at Bravo headquarters yielded some magic. The network gathered together a group of women, coined them “Real Housewives,” and threw them on television so we could all stare at lives that appeared awesomely aspirational. By day, these women brunched and lunched on expansive terraces where the sun beamed brilliantly, providing the perfect amount of backlighting until they all resembled dewy angels who prospered by never eating a single thing. By night, they entered sprawling closets in their homes that mirrored the appearance of upscale boutiques and selected outfits that could often be described as “glitzy" – or, if we’re talking about Adrienne Maloof, the look might be best thought of as “Christmas-tinsel-chic.” A bevy of perfectly groomed puppies scampered about their feet as their maids served coffee made from beans that were roasted by hand and their husbands greeted them with warm kisses when they returned home from wherever they ventured each day in order to make heaping boatloads of money. Vacations were embarked upon year-round and nobody ever questioned if the private jet could hold the weight of so many suitcases. The Hermes was real and the bonds between the women were strong and the biggest argument that popped up was rooted in the dilemma of whether or not one woman had the audacity to call another woman “insecure.”
That idyllic time is over. Very little remains now of the days spent luxuriating in the sun besides some flowing caftans and a flood of tarnished memories. When exactly was it that the tide turned into a constant undertow, when the picturesque lives we sighed and wished were our own spectacularly imploded? Was it when Russell committed suicide and we watched the season before his death play out knowing what the resolution would be and every single time his grim face appeared on television it felt like we were seeing a ghost? Was it watching his allegedly abused spouse starve herself into a trembling pit of oblivion while claiming that being on this show was saving her life? Could the explosion of all that once felt sublime have been caused by the mindless cackle of Kim Richards or the desperate and cruel machinations of Brandi Glanville? All I know is I long for the days when Camille Grammer descended down a grand staircase swathed in couture on Tony night and toasted a man who had already decided to leave her because, devastating as that was, those were the simple days.
It might be a quest to stay on this show and remain perpetually relevant that inspires the current crop of Housewives to battle one another constantly, throwing down empty gauntlets to trigger fights that not one of them can even hope to win anymore. I don't know how else to explain why this group of women – who are clearly not a collection of totally vapid dummies – insist on discussing the same matters over and over again, destroying connections that were at least once enjoyable, even if they were never more than superficial. It's almost sad to see the disintegration of friendships play out before us like an opera produced by Kandinsky and it's made more upsetting that not one of these women at her core is truly awful. What they are, I think, is fundamentally confused. They're confused when they believe every argument will eventually lead to a satisfying ending. They're confused and dismayed that posts on social media will rarely count as undisputed evidence. They were confused when they bought into the idea that what they said off-camera would never be discussed on camera. And they're terribly confused when they expect that everything in their lives will not be consumed and then spit out by friends and enemies alike after they have so willingly blurred the lines between what is real and what is considered entertainment.
I used to watch the other Housewives shows, too. These days, I'm only a recap slave to Orange County, New York, and Beverly Hills, but the only one I have an honest affinity for is Beverly Hills. (Orange County lost me when it allowed Vicki Gunvalson to speak and breathe and New York lost me when nobody from the legal department of Bravo stepped in to investigate whether or not Sonja Morgan’s beleaguered interns were victims of a human rights violation.) But when it comes to Beverly Hills, despite their massive collective wealth and the insistence about shoving the Richards sisters down our gagging throats, the women on this installment have always come across to me as fairly normal. It's dismaying now to watch Lisa Rinna spiral out of control as she tries to get those around her to understand all of the thoughts that are plaguing her mind while imploring them to take some responsibility for the actions she’s engaged in. It sucks watching Eileen Davidson refuse to move beyond a comment that was perhaps poorly phrased but certainly innocuous. It's awful seeing Lisa Vanderpump being confronted about things she did or did not say because, whatever the truth, she's not about to change her story now.
It's absolutely hellish to consider that the producers might one day choose to bring back Kim Richards because the woman is vile and terribly sick and somehow not at all interesting to watch, even in an aberrant rubbernecking kind of way.
Despite my conflicted feelings about women whose lives I no longer covet, the show must move forward for voyage time. The glamorous trips the Housewives take never really go all that well, but I suppose getting on that plane is in their contact. This time they are in Dubai. After sniping at one another in the Hamptons and sneering across tables in San Diego, they're really taking this show on the road and now they are far away from all that they know while still fighting over the very same things.
At least we might get to see a camel or two.
We begin this week with the women split up into pairs. Kyle and Lisa Vanderpump head off to play with some sea lions, Erika and Eileen take in the aquarium, and Kathryn and Lisa Rinna luxuriate the afternoon away at a spa. At first it all goes exactly as anybody with a pulse would expect. Kyle makes a big showy show of wiggling into her wetsuit so any casting agent that’s watching can remember that she’s a fucking ace at physical comedy while Lisa coos to the sea lion that he’s a rather sexy beast. I’m sure it’s just her weird quirk, but does nobody else feel a little perplexed about the way Lisa always comments about the undeniable sex appeal of dogs and cats and sea lions and ponies and, I’m guessing, every alpaca she’s ever met? I still worship her and all, but that kind of oddity is just that: fucking odd.
But at least those two are having fun. Over in the aquarium – which basically looks exactly like the themed bedroom she’s bunking in – Eileen cannot make it through one full segment on this show anymore without saying to whatever person she’s standing next to that there is so much other people are not saying. No joke: at this point, if nobody is around, I think Eileen says those words into a mirror. This absolute and unrelenting need she’s got to resolve every single conflict by getting the people she’s decided are guilty to apologize for things they remember differently and were not even particularly sorry for in the first place is a fool’s game and, no matter how level her voice stays, Eileen is looking more and more like a fool to me. What world does she live in where people always do what she’s decided is the right thing? What poisoned fortune cookie did she once eat after pulling free the slip of paper and nodding solemnly at the notion that everyone will absolutely reap what he or she sows? I’m not a Real Housewife so I don’t quite relish saying the same fucking thing time and time again, so let this be my last tirade – at least for this week – and allow me to voice some truth that sometimes adults simply do not care for one another or trust one another and nothing can change that. It’s the rational person who understands this, maybe feels a little bit disappointed, and then moves on. It’s the crazy person who steadfastly believes that everything should be discussed and everyone should know what is going on and has confidence in the idea that being right is more important than being happy.
Eileen’s got herself an audience in Erika. After all, Erika is not about to share anything of herself with these women who are essentially strangers – which makes her a fucking genius – but she is perfectly willing to discuss the others. What fascinating take does Erika have on Lisa Rinna’s issue with Yolanda? The takeaway seems to be that she finds it moronic and unacceptable that Lisa used the word “enraged” to describe her feelings about Yolanda hanging out with Brandi and Kim during the same twenty-four hours that she blew off Erika’s awful dinner party. Yes, the woman who wants society at large to embrace the word “cunt” is horrified that Lisa categorized her feelings with the word “enraged.” No joke – the issue here is about fucking vocabulary! Can’t they all just buy one another a thesaurus that’s highlighted with acceptable words for every possible occasion and call it a fucking day?
Meanwhile, the spa day Lisa Rinna and Kathryn are partaking in (because they picked one another’s name from a hat and were subsequently stuck together for the rest of the afternoon after Lisa Vanderpump shrewdly slipped the production assistant in charge a fifty so she could assure the likelihood that she would get to wile away the hours by playing with some creature who doesn’t hate her and a sea lion) is relaxing, but it’s also filled with some provocative chatter. Lisa wants Kathryn – a woman they all now know cannot keep a secret – to realize that Lisa Vanderpump is the head chauffeur of the manipulation train. See, Lisa Rinna is sick and tired of keeping her mouth shut about Ms. Vanderpump’s dastardly deeds, the ones that – if they actually happened – wisely transpired off-camera because Lisa Vanderpump might be manipulative and she might have a strange crush on the entire otter species, but she’s no fucking idiot and she will not be filmed saying anything too provocative. In my mind, that is not being manipulative; it’s being sensible.
Would it make sense for Lisa Rinna to take Lisa Vanderpump aside to speak with her about how she’s solved the mystery and now realizes that Lisa Vanderpump is the single most evil woman on the planet? Probably. Will it happen? Give me a fucking break. Instead, these women are going to go spend the day riding a jeep through a desert and watching a falcon show and then dining on some goat and camel and making Sex and the City references because they don’t have a whole lot more to say. I, however, do have some things to say. Here’s one: Erika’s hair – tended to by her traveling glam harem – looks like she skinned and then slipped a triceratops on her head. She’s also wearing so much black eyeliner that it looks like she’s been punched. She calls the look “desert chic.” I call the look “questionable.”
Whatever her ensemble, at least Erika is trying to have a good time on this trip. She takes in the horrifying news that their dinner will not include alcohol and that the beverage they are being served was sweetened with milk from a camel. She smiles when Kyle gets a henna tattoo and refrains from sarcastically asking if she got the Chanel logo inked across her hand. She gamely watches a dancer perform some gyrations for them and turns to wink at the glam team she stashed behind some sand dunes earlier in the day as a way to indicate that they should be taking notes of the moves rocking out before them so Erika Jayne can incorporate them into her next number. And just when Erika smiles widely at the thought that maybe dinner with these loons might go well from start to finish, Lisa Rinna opens her mouth.
“I have some things I need to get off my chest,” Rinna announces – apropos of nothing at that point. Now, her big problem today is with that lying evil Vanderpump lady, but she’s got to ease herself into that tirade, so she brings up her complicated feelings about Yolanda first.
“Do you like Yolanda?” Erika asks.
“That’s an interesting question,” replies Lisa Rinna. Then she launches into an explanation that they need time to connect and she doesn’t like how she’s not allowed to confront Yolanda because Yolanda is sick and that gives her a free pass. Can’t she just answer, “No, I actually don’t really like Yolanda,” and be done with it? I don’t particularly care for some of the people I work with – I think most of us have that one person we’d throw a retirement party for tomorrow just so we’d never have to see her again. It actually doesn’t need to be so complicated when one person simply doesn’t care for another, but Lisa can’t say such a thing so instead she launches into a question and answer session with Erika.
“Do you like me? Do you judge me?” she wonders.
Yes, Erika says slowly, she does like Lisa. And no, she does not judge her. But when the question is thrown back to Lisa, it comes out that sure, Lisa judges Erika. Lisa judges everybody! But it’s not like her judgment is a big deal or anything. She was just reacting to the explicit piece of pornography that Erika tried to pass off as a music video, the one that made her so uncomfortable to watch.
“Didn’t you pose twice for Playboy?” asks Erika, her eyes darkening while her glam posse behind the dunes begins to gather the nunchucks they brought with them just in case they were called into action to defend their mistress’ honor.
Lisa Rinna is confused. How is it that Erika is mad at her? How could such a thing have happened? Is this a rhetorical question? You know what? I don’t give a fuck so I’m just going to go ahead and answer this very confused woman. Lisa? This conversation went to shit because you were honest with someone who is not particularly interested in hearing what you really think about things and it’s okay that not everybody cares how your mind works. Tell the truth to the people who matter. Tell the rest of the people in your orbit that their hair looks pretty and dinners will start to come and go without incident.
As for Eileen, she thinks this entire conversation Lisa is having with Erika is all being done so Lisa can avoid confronting the real monster, Lisa Vanderpump. The Resolver of All Problems needs a break from this nonsense, so she heads off with Kathryn and Kyle to take a few tokes off the hookah, leaving Erika and the two Lisas to fight to the fucking death.
(By the way, after one inhalation, Kyle dissolves into a torrent of giggles. She was so that girl in high school who claimed to be high just by being in a room heavy with weed fumes.)
Committed to confronting what she sees as a real issue, Lisa Rinna tells Lisa Vanderpump that they need to talk. “At your house, when I mentioned the Munchausen, you came out after and asked why I didn't bring Kyle up,” she says. “No,” replies Lisa Vanderpump, “what I said was that I knew you were going to drag us into it. I never said ‘Munchausen.’” Who do I believe? The reality is that I seriously no longer care and I think that might be a problem. Investment in these people has faded to nothingness and rabid annoyance has taken over instead. What I really can’t understand is why Lisa Rinna keeps obsessing over the fact that she’s the scapegoat. First, she’s the one who said the M word and she did it on camera in a move that was supremely foolish. Second, she’s the one refusing to let it go, keeping an issue she wants to destroy alive. If she never said another word about it, maybe the problem would just fucking croak.
Lisa Rinna does not get the answer she wants during that dinner, so she will just bring it up tomorrow night! But before she can ruin yet another meal, there is shopping to be done! The ladies head to the souk and barter for shoes they will never actually wear and, at one point, Lisa Rinna approaches Eileen while they’re shrouded by hanging pieces of fabric and asks if she can come by her room later to talk. Lady! Let it go!
Later that day, Erika decides she’s had enough of these bitches for a little while and she needs a nap. Lisa Vanderpump stays behind in the hotel, too. In their absence, the rest of them head off to Nobu, and that reminds me: it’s really been far too long since I’ve had their insanely delicious miso cod. I’ll probably swing by the Tribeca branch instead of heading to the one in Dubai, but my culinary preferences don’t really matter at the moment. What I guess is supposed to matter is the way Lisa Rinna cannot let her problem with Lisa Vanderpump rest so she decides to announce to everyone – including the waiters – over lunch exactly what Lisa said that one time about Kyle and how she was trying to destroy Kyle and throw her under the bus. The thing is, Kyle already knows all of that went down and, when she heard, she approached Lisa Vanderpump alone and not wearing a microphone and allegedly told her not to fuck with her or she’d fuck with her right back. If it’s true, it might be the first time I have ever really liked Kyle because her move was shrewd and stealth and that’s how you get things done.
Hearing the news that Lisa Vanderpump is in fact the worst person to ever have been born – because the words that circle through her head are different than the ones everyone else hears – Lisa Rinna almost cheers. Eureka! She no longer has to be the scapegoat – which is how she has continuously chosen to brand herself. What she cannot seem to accept is that the entire problem might actually dissipate completely if she finally just shuts up about it. Unfortunately (for us – I don’t care too much about her), Lisa is incapable of letting the fact that she believes she’s been victimized go and she heads off to Eileen’s room where she can guarantee herself an enraptured audience. She tells Eileen everything that went down and the two women nod sagely since now they know that Lisa Vanderpump must be destroyed.
Here’s my biggest problem with Lisa Rinna, a woman I frankly got a kick out of all last season because she seemed game to have fun and came off as kind of smart. My issue is that she seems to take on the persona of whomever she's next to at any given moment and she adopts that person’s fury. Eileen has plotted Lisa Vanderpump’s death since the day Lisa used the word “affair” in relation to her marriage – the one that started as an affair – and now Lisa Rinna feels the same depth of rage. The reality, though, is that this fight – like so many other fights where people weren’t around when things were said and cameras didn’t record a portion of things – will never get resolved for real. Therefore, watching Lisa Rinna declare, “I’m not going down! They’re all coming with me,” and, “I’m gonna own it,” while Eileen nods approvingly just makes me roll my eyes to the heavens. Don’t worry: while my eyes and my thoughts went up to that pearly light, I made sure to say hello to Russell from all of us.
Dinner happens next and the vodka is flowing like a river where dead bodies are decomposing along the shore. Knowing how crazy things can get when this group is sober and sipping camel milk, seeing alcohol makes me nervous. Since Erika slept through Kyle’s revelation at lunch, Lisa makes sure to tell her everything she missed and she is basically standing behind the table doing squats to warm up for the battle that she’s ready to fight when that Vanderpump chick finally makes her way to the table. It’s Erika who tries to give Lisa Rinna some advice to let the past go and get to know the people she’s around now, but Lisa Rinna is way too fired up with Eileen’s anger that’s now mixed with her own to listen to someone being rational.
Lisa Vanderpump is all but ignored when she arrives at the table and the look of palpable glee on Eileen’s face as she waits for the next confrontation with the woman she hates more than racism really makes me not like her in the slightest. It’s one thing to dislike someone; it’s quite another to get a blissed-out kick out of watching someone get humiliated.
“You rewrote the truth,” Lisa Rinna announces before Lisa Vanderpump’s water glass is even filled.
“No, I did not,” Lisa Vanderpump states back.
Okay, I have to say here that the rest of this convoluted (and patently uninteresting) conversation is so confusing that I can't even follow it and that has to mean, by what I think might be called “the transitive property,” that if I don't understand the fight, I could then give two shits about it. I guess what it comes down to is that Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle had been talking about Yolanda’s illness and making comments about her Instagram pics and, according to Lisa Rinna, that means that the second they heard her say anything negative about Yolanda, the women began to dance a joyful jig because now it could be Lisa Rinna who would have to take the fall. If you think this logic sounds idiotic, it’s because you are not an idiot.
This is what Kyle knows: she was willing to move beyond any problem she had with Lisa Vanderpump because she knows that nothing she was doing was as cruel as anybody else is making it out to be and she needs a sister-figure in her life.
This is what Kathryn knows: both Lisa Rinna and Lisa Vanderpump are speaking what they genuinely believe is the truth and nothing here will ever get resolved.
This is what Eileen knows: It doesn’t matter that Lisa Vanderpump apologized seventeen months ago for using the word “affair.” She did not care for the phrasing of the apology so she will never fucking accept it.
This is what Erika knows: if Eileen uses the word “enraged” to describe how Lisa Vanderpump made her feel, she will kick her in the fucking shin with one of the boots her glam squad picked out for her so she could look fierce as hell.
This is what Lisa Vanderpump knows: these women are attempting to destroy her and maybe steal her swans for good measure.
This is what Lisa Rinna knows: the definitions of “Munchausen” and “scapegoat” and how to look them up on an iPhone in a fraction of a second.
And this, my friends, is what I know: if there’s actually a bus that everyone is being tossed under for sport, I would like to start driving the fucking thing.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.