I'll be the judge of that.

Reality TV Report – Ladies of London, Dash Dolls and More (Fall 2015)

 

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The world has changed since I last reported. A fantastic season of Real Housewives of New York City is in the rearview. Real Housewives of Orange County is speeding towards conclusion with an ethically questionable (and superb) storyline concerning Brooks’s supposedly fake cancer. Meanwhile, Bachelor in Paradise closed a continuously breathtaking season with the worst on-screen breakup in human history, and I Am Cait has inexplicably been renewed for a second season.

But it is fall now, and we have new realities to confront:

 

Ladies of London (Season 2, Bravo)

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This show is back for a second season, shining with the familiar pop of a sophomore Bravo effort. The editing is smoother, the stakes are more clearly defined, and the women are more confident and more glamorous.

This time around, formerly central figures Noelle Reno and Caprice Bourret are out of the picture. Caprice’s exit makes some sense, considering season 1 concluded with her having two non-twin babies simultaneously (one regular, one surrogate) and also her lame falling out with series headmistress Caroline Stanbury.

But I was initially surprised to hear that Noelle was gone; that is, until I read about her ex-boyfriend Scott’s shocking suicide. Knowledge of this tragedy renders most of Noelle’s scenes during season 1 almost unbearably dark in retrospect, as she complains and emasculates him for being bankrupt, imperfectly divorced and weak.

The story-editing in season 1 could have been better; the vague “raucous American women versus refined English women” dynamic is a decent backdrop, but the ultimate conflict over Caprice’s baby shower felt underdeveloped and unusually trivial, even by B-list Bravo standards. The recent storyline involving Juliette’s choice of an intimate Thanksgiving setting at Caroline Stanbury’s home over Marissa’s vulgar, impersonal restaurant option may feel like a retread of precisely this low-stakes nonsense, this time around it lands so much better. Juliette is emotional and stubborn in a very Bethenny Frankel way (Marissa’s flat personality reminds me a lot of Heather).

Overall, this is my favorite reality show on television this fall. These are women I actually like, but also sometimes find frustrating and inscrutable, which is really what Bravo does best.

 

Below Deck (Season 3, Bravo)

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I’m new to this show, but the current season seemed like a good jumping-on point. The intrepid, macho Captain Lee explains, “I’ve decided to go with an almost entirely new crew this season. There’s gonna be some difficult lessons learned.”

Difficult lessons, indeed. The crew features a prickly Chief Stewardess, a vaguely insubordinate meathead engineer, a wacky blonde, a South African dandy, a brutish yet elegant chef, and a dork that’s kinda in charge but otherwise just on some really lame power trip.

The first two episodes follow the crew as they host an eccentric rich guy and his continually embarrassed entourage for a humbly debauched and mostly sad charter. They execute a crappy foam party and dress the meathead up like Aerosmith to please him. Of course, he’s delighted. I spent these episodes fantasizing he’d get eaten by a shark.

The show isn’t great. For me, it represents an exciting and strenuous new low. I’m not convinced I’ll make it to mid-season.

 

Dash Dolls (Season 1, E!)

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What promised to be the most vapid and inconsequential chapter in the rapidly-expanding Kardashians cosmology turns out to be…pretty awesome!

Dash Dolls is a spinoff about the young women that work for the family’s pseudo-brand DASH. Each is a combination model/stylist/garment-folder at the store’s Los Angeles location. So this is basically E!’s answer to Vanderpump Rules.

To be sure, the show features a healthy amount of the same vulgar emptiness that Kardashians has supplied western civilization with for a decade now. But the characters are all at least minimally interesting. Even this early on, the girls’ individual storylines are more involved than most of what we’re used to seeing from the parent franchise (Cait aside).

Durrani Popal (whom Kim refers to as the “epitome of the Dash Doll” in the most inanimate sense of the term) negotiates a complex internal conflict between her family’s strict Islamic values and her budding romance with a perpetually stoned Jewish guido. Malika pressures her more modest twin sister Khadijah into a nude photo shoot in hopes that it will reignite their respective acting careers. Taylor pisses off her roommates by doing way too many fireball shots with bros on weeknights. Nazy has no time for Durrani’s nonsense and Stephanie has some badass drug addict boyfriend that everyone is suspicious of. Caroline Burt just acts like a dope. Plus, they’re all really good looking.

If you like KUWTK, this will hold your attention and then some.

 

Party Down South (Season 4, CMT)

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“Oh my god…they are so drunk…it’s awful to watch…”

Those were the words of my English roommate Owen, and I really think it’s the best way to communicate what watching this show is like. Party Down South is everything that people who never watched Jersey Shore think Jersey Shore was like. It’s what MTV wanted out of Buckwild, but unlike that show, none of the cast members have died yet –miraculously.

Binging on this recent season the other night, I was pretty shocked.

In the first two episodes, more blood is shed than I’ve ever seen in probably every other episode of reality television ever (including the recent episode of Real Housewives of Orange County where Heather gets leech therapy and later bleeds through her dress). Tiffany brutally attacks Hot Dogg, leaving her face smeared with blood and tears. Then, Murray tries to do a backflip into the pool but smashes his head open on the bottom of the pool instead. He emerges from the water with blood streaming down his face and needs multiple stitches.

Meanwhile, Mattie continues to battle a severe drinking problem muddled with some form of personality disorder that is so obviously serious that I won’t hazard an armchair diagnosis here. For some lightness, Lyle is buffoonishly in love with his girlfriend back home, and we also get a chance to see Daddy lying in the driveway urinating on himself under the warm midday sun. Hot Dogg got boob implants. Walt shaves his chest hair into a hair bikini and tricks Mattie into eating the shavings. Daddy wears a bright white suit to Miami. It just goes on like this.

Here we have behavior so radically debauched as to reach a certain Sadean level of bacchanalia. This is the absolute paragon of the meaningless shitshow, so low in redeeming value that even the most underdeveloped and malnourished sense of propriety will recoil in dismay.

Which is simply to say, Party Down South is must-watch right now.

 

WAGs (Season 1, E!)

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Applying feminist analysis to reality television generally sags with the unbecoming effortlessness of shooting fish in a barrel, but with WAGS it’s like, I don’t know, machine-gunning the rotten corpse of a guppy while it’s picked apart by a famished crab.

This show is about wives and girlfriends pro athletes. That’s who they are; someone’s wife or girlfriend. Like the show’s title indicates, WAGS may feature a robust cast of women, but everything about their on-screen personalities and personal dramas is entirely, sickeningly male-referential.

Ashley pines hopelessly for her quasi-finance to set a wedding date (“You want that ring…”); the wags greedily assess the karats in each others’ diamond rings; they strategize how to beat back the waves of pesky sluts trying to lure their men away (“Our men live in a tempting world. … Millions of people want your man. It’s like a war zone.”); and consult with a certain vagina rejuvenation specialist that will make your skin crawl.

The women self-order themselves into a hierarchy based on the strength of their relationship with their given athlete, ranging from wives and fiancés at the top, to girlfriends and garden-variety hoes at the bottom. (One of them literally does the thing where she explains that some women are “up here” and others are “down there,” which somehow makes the most annoying rhetorical device ever invented all the more infuriating.)

True, Nicole pays lip service to her personal independence by stressing the importance of her modeling career, but any sense of individual identity is all but erased by the counterweight of crushing spousal paranoia. When her husband tries to go out with his friends, it’s as if her entire psyche is on the line.

My only problem with any of this is that it tends to confirm some of the most unfair criticisms usually leveled against reality television: that it’s full of petty, willfully ignorant women who don’t “deserve” to be famous; that it teaches women to value their relation to the phallus above all else; that it devalues feminine subjectivity and entrenches viewers in the act of objectification. Much of this is true in other shows to varying extents, but thoughtful viewers will agree that these more theoretically distasteful aspects of reality television are not inherent to the genre but rather are present at all levels of our society, and that in fact many reality shows dignify and honor feminine subjectivity by offering an honest, intimate picture of their emotional lives and the ongoing maintenance of their personal identities.

WAGs pretty much fails at that project. Olivia and Natalie (essentially the Beavis and Butthead of the group) represent the show’s only saving grace. They seem to be there not only for comic relief, but to provide a much-needed dose of sisterly love. It’s all decently entertaining, but more likely just to leave you feeling kind of depressed.

 

 

I’ve like to hear your views on reality. See me on Twitter or in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

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