“Dorinda drank the Kool-Aid, she joined the cult, she’s on the commune.” And with that one hilarious – and completely accurate – statement, Bethenny Frankel won me back.
It’s always been a significant factor in my makeup as a person to have an immense capacity for forgiveness. I don’t quite know where it came from, but I do know I have seen once-fractured relationships mend and grow stronger and such incidents can only transpire if one is able to forgive. I can say that those I’ve forgiven over the years seem to really appreciate this ingrained quality within me, even as I’ve started to view it as kind of a torturous flaw. I’d actually really love to change that aspect of my personality, to become someone who has zero desire to forgive anyone for anything, but that kind of alteration will almost certainly require a huge deal of effort and I think it’s just wise that I devote my energy to things like mastering the art of baking broccoli until it chars correctly, organizing my spring skirts by length, and finally sitting down to watch seasons three, four, and five of Friday Night Lights.
I’ll learn to become a withholding asshole next year.
But it’s perhaps this ability to forgive that is allowing me to write an entire post about Bethenny Frankel, someone I previously described as a woman on the verge of some sort of reality television-breakdown, one caused by making the curious choice to be in frequent proximity to Ramona’s new face, Sonja’s anecdotal delusions, Luann’s haughtiness, Carole’s sex dreams, Kristen’s nail polish fumes, Dorinda’s mean-drunk blowups, and Heather’s insistence that Bethenny eat just one fucking meatball while she watches. It all seemed so strange to me. Here was a bonafide millionaire returning to reality television after she’d made her fortune and become a household name. Despite a failed talk show (c’mon, everybody has a failed talk show), she and her brand had become ubiquitous in our society. Proof? Not once have I ever entered a liquor store and glanced up to see a bottle of Merlot with a label that told me it was part of the Wine By Wives line, a pretend company some of those Orange County women scraped together as a vanity project once the season ended and they could no longer face the day without feeling important or tipsy. Skinnygirl, however, is everywhere. I’ve even tried it! Okay, so it’s my personal opinion that the original margarita version tastes like what I think evil must taste like, but still – it’s a legitimate product sold in legitimate stores and its creator became a legitimate star.
So when Bethenny returned to Bravo as a supporting player, the entire thing felt odd. That said, the bizarre nature of it all – the one that sort of felt like my reaction to Ben Affleck choosing, after his directorial success, to go play Batman – did not damper my enthusiasm for the news. Bethenny was my favorite New York Housewife. I found her hilarious and blunt and cutting and articulate in the way that draws me to people of any sex. (I feel like I should point out here that I have never had a sex dream about Bethenny the way Carole did. If I went the girl route, I think I’d want someone a bit curvier.) As for why she was once my favorite, it helped that she hated the same people I did. I almost sent her a festive basket filled with air – because that’s all she eats – when she told Kelly Bensimon to her face that she’s an insane person. As I saw it, anyone who still had a few brain cells left or just an iota of logic because it wasn’t knocked out of them that time they were run over by a taxi while jogging down the middle of a city street realized, as Bethenny did, that this model none of us had ever heard of was out-of-her-fucking-mind crazy. Still, the Bensimon Brawl paled in comparison to the season when Bethenny tried repeatedly to make amends – public amends, but amends nonetheless – to Jill Zarin and, after many attempts that were stymied because Jill refused to speak with her until she hadher notes, she finally decided to go ahead and cut that preening asshole out of her life. It was a decision that managed – due to Bethenny’s soaring influence with the Bravo Powers That Be – to eventually cut Jill Zarin out of all of our lives. I almost sprung for a basket of non-gluten air to thank her for that coup because there’s a part of me believes that getting Jill Zarin off the airwaves has bought us as a civilization a little bargaining power when it’s time to defend our gross misdeeds against whatever brings about our ultimate ruin. I used to pretend that the antagonistic representative would be General Zod because I always loved Superman. Now I’m quite sure it’s Donald Trump, who will probably be our next President.
I rooted for Bethenny back then. She lived in the kind of generic apartment my friends lived in right after college, the kind where saying, “I’m going into the other room,” was the kind of aspirational sentence you could only long to one day come true like the filthiest and most vivid sex dream of all time. I applauded the way Bethenny hustled to start and publicize her business and her cynical outlook on love, the one that owed a great deal to the fact that she was allegedly raised by rabid wolves. She had friends, sure, and there were always men in her life, but essentially Bethenny was on her own and it wasn’t difficult for me at all to hope she’d succeed and show them all and maybe even find a little bit of gold at the end of her tequila-flavored rainbow.
When she left the show and snared her very own spinoff, I watched. The series followed her pregnancy and her engagement and the subsequent marriage that appeared doomed if you stared at it more closely than many of us usually watch Bravo – you know, with the TV on as background filler and to check out what people are wearing and to hear what fully nonsensical thing Sonja is passing off as truth this week and to marvel at the way Carole’s puppy looks exactly like her owner. I know some people think Bethenny sabotaged the life she so badly claimed to have wanted for herself by being too demanding and too disparaging and, dammit, too Bethenny, but I didn’t quite see it that way. I saw Jason, the guy she married, as one of those typical Upper East Side guys I would never go on a second date with but I would sit across from him on the first date and wonder what his reaction would be if I told him straight out, “Listen, we’re clearly not right for each other. You’re a decent person – nice, casually empathetic, sometimes pretty fun – but I’m looking for someone with some edge. But I know a lot of girls who find blandness adorable! Can I set you up with one of them?” I actually went ahead and said that to a guy one time. He was not at all amused, but that turned out to be his loss. My sweet and totally uncomplicated friend Jessica would have been perfect for him.
But Bethenny is not an uncomplicated kind of girl. She’s still haunted by her past. She seems to feel like she’s being hunted in her present. She’s fierce in business and forms opinions quickly – and then she shares those opinions whether people want to hear them or not. She’s quick with an insult. The one thing Kelly Bensimon ever said that has any truth to it is that Bethenny’s tongue can be like a knife. She is not touchy-feely. She does not want to be hugged. She cannot enter a room and not change the atmosphere with whatever mood she’s in. Her small talk is both invasive and personal. Her jutting clavicle terrifies me. Toss some wings on that thing and I’ll need to be medicated and then locked inside of a padded room until the very end of time.
Beliefs and reactions can obviously be debated, but those are mine and they didn’t formulate based on nothing. I watched the show. A part of me is embarrassed when I even begin tallying up just how many hours of television starring Bethenny Frankel I have actually sat still for since clearly I could have done something more useful with my time, like learning how to say sentences in Spanish besides, “Puedo afilar mi lapis?” because really: how frequently does one need to ask permission in another language to sharpen a fucking pencil? Regardless of the questionable way I’ve spent my time, though, I do not feel uncomfortable about having an opinion and shouting it from the rooftops before leaning close to the edge and spitting on Jill Zarin, who is standing on the street below as she waits impatiently for some peon to bring her car around while checking her Google Alerts to see if anyone’s mentioned her in the last three years.
My best friend does not share my thoughts on Bethenny Frankel. In fact, my former appreciation for the gaunt one has brought about the harshest discord in a friendship that has spanned over twenty years. Becky thinks Bethenny is the single worst person you can locate with a remote control instead of with a GPS. She wants someone to strangle Bethenny with her own vocal cords – and she’d like to watch as it happens to make sure it worked. She thinks, based on what she’s seen, that Bethenny herself is the sole reason her marriage ended because it appears that Bethenny is allergic to stability and torpedoed her own life while not learning a fucking thing. Truth be told, our continuing disagreement over Ms. Frankel has been harder to solve than the problem we faced a while ago when we both hooked up with the same guy without knowing and found out about it the next day. (We made amends quickly and sent the guy a picture of the two of us with our arms wrapped around each other while grinning widely in a manner I hope nonverbally translated to, “Go fuck yourself.”)
My friend’s biggest issue with Bethenny is that she claimed to have wanted a normal life and a real family, yet she shunned her husband’s attempts to create one for her. I get what she’s saying, but I think it’s about more than that. I think Bethenny just married the wrong guy. Now, I don’t know who the right guy for this woman would be – she strikes me as truly fucking difficult – but I believe it was the desire to settle down that made her actually settle. I guess, despite her newfound fortune, I just felt badly for Bethenny. I know what it’s like to think you want something or someone only to find out what you’re sprinting towards is terrible for you. When that happens, it’s not just the other person you are angry at. No, the greatest viciousness is the one you inflict upon yourself for now having to cope with real and scalding feelings when you knew in the first place that you shouldn’t have even been in the situation at all.
It was with that level of empathy – and a palpable feeling of dread because I couldn’t stand most of the other New York Housewives – that I greeted the news that Bethenny would be returning to the franchise with genuine excitement. Finally, I remember thinking. Finally someone will say something interesting. Finally someone will waltz though these bullshit fights with the kind of weapon you use to tear your way through a mazelike field of corn and cut through the noise to the heart of the conflict. Finally someone on a show with the word “Real” in the title will act real so I can make myself pretend that not every second of this series has been orchestrated by producers who deserve raises.
And then Bethenny returned – and I fucking hated her. She was given the prime slot in the opening credits that indicates that she’s the show’s star and I had no problem with that. She was the first to appear onscreen last season as she, an assistant, and her dog entered a hotel and I was okay with that, too. I thought it was a foolish choice of words that she called herself “homeless” while living in a place that provides room service, but I didn’t hold it against her. No, what I couldn’t stand was watching someone so shrilly defensive and offensive at the same time. She charged forward and changed the tempo of every conversation, and not for the better. There were times when I would have rather gazed hard at static than watch her thin lips curl in a snarl. She appeared tremendously uncomfortable in her own skin and seemed to want to deal with it by breathing fire when often a few carefully constructed sparks would have also done the trick. She went after Kristen, a woman supremely dull but also supremely harmless, and the fight between them never seemed quite fair due to the obvious imbalance of power. She aligned herself immediately with Carole, a move that I cynically believed was a choice crafted more by strategy than pure sentiment. She sat at tables and in stores and burst into tears before saying that she didn’t want to talk about her feelings even though she was wearing a microphone and knew full well what being on a reality show was all about. She appeared to have signed a lucrative contract just so she could lose her mind in high-definition.
“You were right,” I said with a heavy sigh over the phone to my friend after watching the second episode of last season. “This woman is a nightmare.” To her credit, she only laughed at me for seven consecutive minutes, an act that showed impressive restraint.
Bethenny almost won me back a few times, though. When she gripped a drunken Sonja by the forearms and demanded that she shut her fucking mouth and stop spewing the mixture of bullshit – the kind that’s made up of name-dropping anecdotes about things that never happened, the semen of some twenty-two year old wannabe model, and cheap Pinot – I might have cheered. When she held a sobbing Ramona in her arms even though she doesn’t much care for physical intimacy, I recognized the sparkle of goodness in her, the one I swore used to be there back when she lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, those incidents were not enough for me. The woman, by my estimation, had become fully hardened and I didn’t find it charming and I didn’t even find it interesting. I found it sad and Bethenny seemed caustic in a way that made me pull on a hoodie as the show aired because looking at her made me feel a chill even though the show aired clear through a hot and humid Spring.
I decided this year that I would not be officially recapping The Real Housewives of New York City in the way I cover Beverly Hills, Orange County, and Vanderpump Rules. I realized I needed a break from such active viewing; I wanted to just be able to stare at the show and maybe start liking it again without having the responsibility of turning my observations into a twelve-page document I’d hurriedly post online the following morning. Technically speaking, this is not a recap – but it was inspired by this week’s episode when I realized two important things:
1. I actually miss the practice of recapping this show and I will begin doing it again in the next few weeks -- or as soon as I can generate a lengthy list of synonyms for the words that can best define John, Dorinda’s disgusting boyfriend, a man I believe with all of my might smells like the kind of bathroom garbage that is chock full of urine and used tampons. I’ve already jotted down grotesque, pathetic, monstrous, stomach churning, and infected sphincter so I’m well on my way.
2. I think I like Bethenny again.
Sure, she’s as tightly wound as she was last year, even the cadence of her voice coming out in a biting and staccato tempo. And yes, she didn’t make fun of Ramona for stapling her eyebrows to the very top of her forehead or for having a voicemail greeting that consists only of the words, “Ramona! Ramona!” though a part of me thinks she must have mentioned the ridiculousness of all of that at some earlier point. Something’s different, though. The things riling Bethenny up this year make sense in the way they didn’t last year when she lost her entire mind the time Heather called her “Beth.” While only two episodes of this season have aired, Bethenny’s kept her grievance firmly directed at the people who have earned it, starting with a piece of raccoon excrement that will still reek even after it’s been dry-cleaned by a cokehead. Prior to this season, just a glimpse of John’s face or body was enough to make me stare at anything – a blank wall, a dirty dinner plate, a mirror – just so my eyes could settle on something more appealing and only then would my heart rate begin to slow. Watching him paw his girlfriend in public almost caused me to curl into a fetal position and suck my thumb until I felt safe again. But it has been his erratic behavior this season and his swaying walk and his aggressive stance and the droplets of sweat dripping down his bloated red face and fat neck that have made me want to rip his throat out and toss that too from the top of a building so it also lands on Jill Zarin as she checks her text messages to see if today’s the day Andy Cohen wrote her a quick note to say that he really misses her.
It has been the way she confronted a woefully unpleasant man-toddler who has enough money to have his very own drug dealer that has landed me directly on Bethenny’s side again. See, when someone sucks so badly and saunters onto our television screens and boldly declares that the women who think he’s fucking repulsive only think that because they’re dried-up hags who harbor envy that they too do not have such amazing men in their lives, we need a coherent voice of reason to destroy him and it’s Bethenny who has come to our rescue. Not only does she call John out for his blotto appearance and his bullshit Snoopy scarf, but she also demolishes his accusations that she stole some guy’s business and stays fairly calm while this dripping douchebag bobs and weaves before her, incorrectly believing he has won this battle, incorrectly believing that he has descended from the same species as the rest of us. Really, who else but Bethenny was going to call John out for signing a release to appear on this show and then choosing to come off as the single most unappealing man on television at a time when Bill O’Reilly still has his very own timeslot? It wasn’t going to be Ramona who came through to tell John the very same thing each one of us has running through our minds. Ramona, you see, is far too busy practicing apologies behind a stairwell because apparently she missed the day How To Be Normal was taught in school. Carole’s not about to be the one to get involved in this nightmare. For one thing, she doesn’t care nearly enough about any of these people to get her hands dirty. Besides, she needs to rest up for her upcoming scuffle with a fake Countess, the one who’s now bunking with a lunatic who is a legend only in her own mind – a mind John-John Kennedy visits often to tell her she looks young and pretty. And this new girl, Jules, is not about to confirm to Dorinda that the man everyone hates will certainly ruin both her reputation and her life because she’s far too busy not eating, assembling Shabbat candles out of a thimble and one of those maxi pads she wears every thirty days, and reading up on how to best deal with the elderly. Yes, it comes down to Bethenny to be bold and rational and the woman has taken that responsibility and she’s fucking running with it. I think I actually applauded at one point when she sprawled herself casually across the couch at the bra party and all but called John a piece of shit. She stayed calm, cool, and collected – and I hope she eventually reaches over and rips the comb-over from his puffy scalp and drizzles his poor excuse for hair from the rooftop where it will make Jill Zarin snap her fingertips so some man she hired will immediately snap open an umbrella because she thinks it’s raining.
Maybe it’s that her life has somewhat settled down and her divorce – the one that seems interminable even to me and I don’t even know the woman – is almost over that’s causing Bethenny to appear a bit lighter this season. Perhaps it’s because she no longer has a desire to fight with irrational people that has caused her to embrace Ramona instead of attempting to reason with her and that choice has led to a funny friendship between the two. Certainly a part of it is that her hair looks phenomenal, but honestly, whatever the formula has been that’s caused me to change my mind, a change has occurred. I forgive Bethenny for causing me to hate her last season. I will root for her as she moves forward. I would even take a day trip to visit the commune where she has been anointed guru. And while I’m there, I’d say that I’d toast to her success with a salt-rimmed glass of Skinnygirl margarita, but that stuff still tastes like shit and there are some things that I simply cannot forgive.
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.