The current season of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" opens not with a lavish banquet or that gratingly whimsical soundtrack, but with the stark image, however brief, of a roller coaster submerged in water. The show kicked off this fifth season on June 2, but the setting is November of last year, just as the seaside communities in New Jersey were beginning to reckon with the desolation of Hurricane Sandy. Ever the most honorable of the Jersey Housewives, Caroline Manzo is glimpsed doing some service work, as are her brother Chris Laurita and his wife, Jacqueline. We check in with each of the other three Housewives: Kathy Wakile, Melissa Gorga and Teresa Giudice react to the wreckage around them, some briefly alluding to childhoods spent on the shore. Initially, it seems that they all may be there to give back to the stricken community. Then each of them laments the status of their second homes, aghast at the shells of their vacation houses. In a cutaway interview, Teresa exclaims, “Thank God this is my second home ... just thinking that people are homeless ... I can't even imagine.” And, we're back.
This isn't to belittle the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the Housewives. If not as bad as losing everything, losing a second property certainly still takes a financial and emotional toll (and, of course, so many of the properties on the Shore are vacation ones). But here's the progression of the five episodes of "Jersey" we've gotten so far in 2013: Out of the wreckage of Sandy, we see Melissa's 7-year-old daughter, Antonia, receive a new iPhone for her birthday. We see Kathy and Rich's 17-year-old son, Joseph, learn to drive in his mother's Mercedes and his dad's Ferrari; we see Teresa's daughter Gia celebrate her 12thbirthday in some setting that seeks to replicate a nightclub for preteens while the parents drink in an adjacent room.
The juxtaposition feels queasy, exemplifying the perennial tension of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Out of the supposedly sobering ruins of Sandy, the same story lines are built — the gaudy parties, the petty infighting. The show tries to trade on all the symbolic markers of earnest, hardworking New Jersey, halfheartedly gesturing to an all-American sense of fortitude under the pressures of natural disaster, but unwittingly chooses something too fitting in a different way. As the opening sequences post-Sandy show the tangible results of an icon of Jersey's destruction, something is underlined. "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" has always thrived on imploding things — mainly relationships. But what's really being dismantled is our perception of New Jersey as a state and symbol, and, consequently, some much bigger things as well.
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"The Real Housewives of New Jersey" premiered on May 21, 2009. It was the fourth iteration in Bravo's increasingly popular "Housewives" franchise, following "New York," "Atlanta" and the original "Orange County," and preceding "Beverly Hills," "Miami" and the short-lived "D.C." Its first episode garnered 1.7 million viewers, not a bad number by "Housewives" standards but nothing spectacular. By the sixth episode it had built up enough hype and tension to pull in 3.47 million, the second-highest ratings ever for an episode in any of the "Housewives" franchises, and pretty astronomical numbers in general for a channel like Bravo. This episode was “The Last Supper,” the one where Teresa flipped a table and ushered the Jersey Housewives to the front of the Bravo pack.
The National Bureau of Economic Research also marks June 2009 as the official end of the recession.
It's odd that the "Housewives" franchise has met with such success in post-recession America. In the wake of the most severe economic downturn many of us have yet to witness, in a time when growth still comes in stumbling steps and many of the coveted viewers on the lower end of the key 18-49 demographic struggle to find entry-level jobs, let alone anything that feels like it could lead to the sort of lifestyle the Housewives enjoy, what appeal does a show like this have? Why are people attracted to a show focused on wealthy people using their wealth in generally disgusting ways, making the case that no one anywhere really deserves nice things?
Some might argue that it's aspirational viewing, that people experiencing the ramifications of the recession turn to shows like this to live vicariously through them. That doesn't feel like what's occurring here, though. Shows like the "Housewives" posit a vision of reality, but a warped, hyper-real one. One where supposedly respected and powerful socialites will throw wine in each other's faces. Of course, the “real” in "Real Housewives" was always a relative term. Not many real housewives live anything like these people, most of whom are nouveau riche displaying particularly garish and wanton versions of conspicuous consumption. At their core, the "Housewives" shows seem to be about a very typically American narrative: Many of these families like to stress how they've worked hard to reach this point in their lives. It's the American Dream, and all that.
While "Atlanta" usually takes the No. 1 spot in ratings among the "Housewives" franchises, "New Jersey" isn't inconsequential. It holds the No. 1 spot for reunion episodes with 3.852 million for the Season 2 reunion, and its Season 3 premiere broke the record of any show's premiere, period, on Bravo, and then its Season 4 premiere beat that. The latter came in at a bit over 3 million viewers, but, more notably, was the most watched show that night among the 18-49-year-old demographic, which meant that the Jersey Housewives earned Bravo the best night in its existence.
And "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" occupies an important place thematically. Consider the locations of some of the other "Housewives" shows. "Orange County" and "Beverly Hills" are both set in California near Los Angeles, state and city alike long-running symbols of a certain type of excessive American wealth — the golden land of movies and silicon at the other end of the frontier, where it's warm enough to drive your Ferrari year-round. "New York," too, is a classic site for critiques of the excessive pitfalls of America's capitalistic ways. Miami is a city seemingly predicated on fantasies of excess, primarily trading on those in a pop cultural sense. All three are too-obvious explanations; of course watching these would be vicarious, because they are total fabrications of life. None of them have the ratings as strong or consistent as "New Jersey."
New Jersey — and by extension "New Jersey" — occupies its own odd little place in America. Stuck between Philadelphia and New York, it has access to major urban centers, yet lacks any of its own that could argue equal cultural cachet. People from Jersey love the place with a certain unexplainable fervor as unyielding as everyone else's interest in making it the butt of jokes. It's not a state we would normally conceive of as wealthy, given its primary avatars are likely Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, entities who are plenty wealthy on their own but representative of a blue-collar culture. And yet, it's the third-richest state in the country.
One of the most common sentiments expressed in the recent obituaries for James Gandolfini was about the humanity he was able to bring to a violent and disturbing character like Tony Soprano. That's what New Jersey has always felt like. Real, human, all-American. It seems particularly fitting that at a recent show Bruce Springsteen played "Born to Run" in its entirety in tribute to Gandolfini. Beyond the fact that E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt was on "The Sopranos," the show shared DNA with landmark art from Jersey like "Born to Run."
In both, there's a balance between working-class realities and the dreams that get them by, the open highway in Springsteen's music or the pursuit of riches in "The Sopranos." But in each case it remains grounded. The protagonists of Springsteen's music entertain delusions of grandeur but wind up settling for mediocre, realistic lives. Tony aside, many of the characters on "The Sopranos" don't seem to be that excessively well off; the show toes a line between showing the economic realities of mid-level mafiosi and using mob life as an extreme mode of depicting the American Dream gone wrong. In either instance, though, the setting of Jersey is used as a grounding mechanism, a classic American place that keeps the romantic dreams in Springsteen's head or the drama of "The Sopranos" from becoming fantasy.
Since 2009, though, the Jersey mantle has been taken by "Jersey Shore" and "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." The cast of "Jersey Shore" never lived too extravagantly, necessarily — or at least not in the same way as the Housewives — but they did get to live like college kids on perpetual spring break. There was value placed on going to the club, getting wasted and starting fights much in the same way as there is value in the "Housewives" on going to the dinner party, getting wasted and starting fights. In both cases, stereotypes or tropes of Jersey are used to further the absurdity, not to ground it or humanize it. The image of the Jersey shore gets dirtied and bastardized. Both shows played up stereotypes of hot-headed Jersey Italians in a garish way directly counter to the more nuanced meditations of "The Sopranos." These shows want to remind you at every turn how Jersey they are, how much Jersey is in the blood of these cast members, and yet the Jersey they project is a fun-house mirror version both in relation to the realities of the state and to its traditional position in our pop culture consciousness.
That tension encapsulates how "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" seems to have more of a claim to representing the American Dream than the other series in Bravo's franchise. The Manzos and the Giudices are wealthy, but not from working on Wall Street; their money comes from running a restaurant, from construction. They are the sort of people you're supposed to admire, that connect back to the New Jersey we've become accustomed to seeing represented. And yet the behavior required to make a good "Housewives" show automatically takes this American Dream narrative and mutates it.
In a way, it's the inevitable, logical extension of an American Dream narrative in post-recession America. We now live in a time where that sort of upward mobility is by no means as guaranteed as it once felt, jobs definitely not as accessible. Within those parameters, a bit of American mythology eats itself, and the clean upward teleology of the American Dream turns into fake tans and fake hair and fake nails and drunk women screaming and pushing one another outside of charity events.
Aspirational? Vicarious? These do not seem to be the functions of the popularity of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Disgust — with ourselves, with our government, with the financial ruins brought on by the reckless way Americans treat money — would be a more believable feeling. Apathy, after watching all that go down and nothing really changing in the aftermath. And out of apathy, self-detachment — experiencing a moment where that American Dream narrative leans heavily on the word “Dream” to the point where the words blur and it looks like “Delusion.” "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," like its sister shows, demonstrates how the dream can go haywire, and veer in ever more lurid directions. If we're to take the Housewives as representations of the realization of the American Dream, then it would suggest that, yes, maybe it doesn't feel so attainable anymore, but maybe there's something ameliorating, something that makes us not want to attain it if it means becoming like the Housewives. Or maybe, in a cynical way, we like to see that even when people have what we don't, they can still be animalistic, wildly unhappy.
This season of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" opens with visions of the end, a decimated Jersey shore that vows to return but for the moment lies in ruins. It also comes bracketed by a slew of post-apocalyptic movies, from the comedic "This Is the End" to the dour "After Earth," "Oblivion" and "World War Z." Taken together, it's clear that a perverse fascination with the Housewives goes beyond hate-watching; it's reveling in our own destruction. The fact that it takes place in one of the most prototypically American states in America, a place where the classic notion of the American Dream would theoretically thrive, makes it all the more jarring. After all, if Bravo's insane vision of wealth in post-recession America can corrupt even Jersey, what's left? What do we build out of the ruins?
The story goes that during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD the emperor Nero played his lyre and sang as the city burned around him. Though the modern scholarship tends to disagree with this belief, there were some who wrote that Nero had perhaps himself set fire to Rome, deliberately committing arson against his own city in order to make room for new constructions. A new palace. We don't watch "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" from a place of aspiration, or even from a place of escapism. We watch it because we're disassociated from foundational myths of the country we grew up in and, knowing our smallness in being unable to prevent it all — the recession; the step-by-step tearing down of the American Dream we were all sold — from happening again, detach from ourselves to the point where we revel in the "Housewives" because of the perverse aesthetic pleasure in watching our own self-destruction. Something or another is burning down, and regardless of what, if anything, gets built to replace it, we probably don't really give a damn anymore, and the view from here is nice, anyway.