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In the first season, for instance, Gunvalson attempts to balance her insurance business and her controlling instincts as a mother and wife to second husband Donn. The show was full of scenes that captured the relationship between these white suburban mothers and their sons, who came off as infantilized and overly powerful.
Most of the drama, in the beginning, was intra-family, not inter-Housewife.
It’s gone from an avant-garde form of television to the lingua franca of cable, as myriad competitors with their own versions of the feuding-women framework have appeared, including Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop, Mob Wives, and R&B Divas.
It has even turned into fodder for entire news websites, successful podcasts, and multiseason parody series — like the Real Husbands of Hollywood and The Hotwives of Orlando — that have developed their own followings.
As its influence expanded, the franchise has come to represent a kind of Mean Girls sensibility; to say that something is “like Housewives” means to reduce that thing — including major political issues — into supposedly frivolous feminine terms and calculated camp outrageousness.
Even Housewives executive producer Andy Cohen noted that last year’s Trump-dominated presidential debates had turned into a Real Housewives reunion, implying that they had devolved into petty accusations and a reality TV spectacle.
But its demographic skewed younger, and, seeking to exploit that potential, the network brought in veteran reality producer Doug Ross (Fear Factor, Big Brother, and Bravo’s own Boy Meets Boy) to take over the second season of Orange County. But the “Housewives children” would never be heavily featured again — except in service of their parents’ storylines — and a reunion would never again be free of discord.
Initially, the show’s main aesthetic changed only slightly: The “Housewives Confess” segment moved to a talk-show setting, with Andy Cohen onscreen as the human face of a Bravo producer, quizzing the women about the season. By Season 4 — which aired in 2008 — a new cast member, Gretchen Rossi, a 30-year-old with pageant-queen style engaged to an older man dying of leukemia, joined the cast, and her unimpressed fellow Housewives Gunvalson and Tamra Barney (now Tamra Judge) questioned the authenticity of their relationship."We don't believe that Gretchen is dating this guy.
The Real Housewives franchise is often presented as the immaculate conception of Andy Cohen, the Bravo producer turned talk-show host; his childhood love of soap operas and actor Susan Lucci influenced his sensibility, and this is frequently presented as leading directly to the program’s creation.But the Housewives franchise wasn’t always defined by catfights and reunions.As it became, collectively, a major ratings success over the course of the last decade, the focus of each incarnation of the show shifted from telling stories about the cast members’ family dynamics and separate lives to center, instead, on the conflicts they have with one another.It’s telling that Cohen invoked the reunion, specifically — in which the castmates sit down in a talk-show setting after the final episode to revisit the season’s major storylines — to draw the comparison.In some ways, that aspect of the format has become most representative of the franchise’s sensationalism as well as its self-referentiality.He was a branding expert and entrepreneur, not a professional reality television producer, and his version, titled Behind the Gates — described by a Bravo executive as Curb Your Enthusiasm–esque — wasn’t framed from the women’s perspective.Instead, it was about general class absurdity, not feminine spectacle, and the women’s husbands, as Dunlop recalled, played a more prominent role.And the reunions, originally titled Real Housewives Confess: A Watch What Happens Special, weren’t the spectacle of cross-talking and counteraccusations that have become a trademark of the show.They were a low-key affair — initially without a host — in which the women came together to reflect on funny or embarrassing moments from the season.They're introduced through random phrases that they uttered throughout the season, which, unlike the current catchphrases, weren’t necessarily about the women themselves, but rather attempted to convey something about the community’s values (“I don’t wanna get old”; “He’s pretty much keeping me”; “85% of the women have had breast implants”).Most important, the storylines focused on showcasing the individual wives and their family dynamics, not emphasizing the interactions or fights among the cast.