The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Season 1: A Retrospective

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In lieu of recapping the RHONY reunion, which my dear friend/platonic lover Gerard has already done so expertly, I’m embarking upon something a little different. I recently started rewatching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. To no particular end; I just needed something in the background while I was cleaning the house and jerking off and why not Taylor Armstrong deep throating a strand of cotton candy? But then this blog started, and it seemed a shame to let that rewatch go to waste. RHOBH was my first love, and the early seasons beg to be mined for analysis. So fire up your electronic cigarettes. Let’s go back to 2010.

I’m about three seasons into my RHOBH rewatch, each of which I plan to cover in-depth, but the thing I’ve been most immediately taken by is how much harder these early seasons land than the recent fare. There’s a few reasons for this. The women, led by Lisa Vanderpump, are increasingly prone to defensive off-camera scheming. Conflicts are hashed out as indirectly as possible. This is notionally to preserve the good public standing of everyone involved — no one can be seen to go on the record with their true thoughts and feelings — but really it ends up exhausting the audience and making everyone involved look petty and passive-aggressive. Direct conflict is at a premium, which makes later seasons feel watered down and repetitive by comparison.

But really, what it comes down to is there’s been a change in the show’s ethos, a change that in my opinion has resulted in a far less interesting product. The change is this: Beverly Hills, in its earliest incarnation, was interested in the darker parts of human nature and the artifice of its setting at a level remarkable even for a Housewives franchise. Deep family trauma, the lie of community, and the corruption of the American Dream were the subjects du jour. The show was far more willing to engage with pretenders like Taylor Armstrong, Cedric, and, later, Dana “Pam” Wilkey, and examine what their aspirations meant about the society they were desperate to inhabit. Now, the glamour of Beverly Hills and the enviable lifestyles of its citizens are played far straighter. Which is fine, and there’s a subset of Housewives fans who watch the show entirely to engage with images of large houses, but for my money the far more substantial drama is in the flaws and fallibility of human beings of every social stripe. These are the stories that RHOBH season one does well.

 

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The Person That Remains in Control is the One That Wins: If there were an Emmy to give out for season one of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Camille Grammer would win it in a landslide. History remembers her as the caustic bitch who terrorized Kyle Richards with her delusions and pretensions and army of badly-behaved mediums, but she actually turned in a restrained and textured performance of wealthy desperation on par with Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. I’m not one of the people who’s hyped for a Camille comeback. Her subsequent outings have shown me that she has far more in common with Kyle than either of them would like to admit, in terms of being someone who’s prissy and a bit uptight and desperate to maintain the Beverly Hills status quo. But the cameras interrupted her at the perfect time in her life to catch a panicking woman in a crumbling marriage eager to perceive slights and lash out at benign enemies, in order to distract herself from the complete implosion of her private world.

As far as the battle between Camille and Kyle, I’ll say this: is it possible to me that Camille misread some innocent off-camera Kyle comment and flew off the handle forevermore? Yes, it’s possible. Reading malintent into other people’s commentary on her marriage was very much where Camille was at. But I truly believe there’s a reason so many women have taken such an immediate dislike to Kyle. Kyle’s feuds are almost exclusively motivated by petty jealousy and fear of non-conformity (Big Kathy did a real number on Les Souers Richards, and you can see it every time they engage with a woman who’s too pretty or too different). Carlton Gebbia, for example, probably didn’t need to lean in on Kyle so hard, so quick. But Kyle confirmed every suspicion Carlton had about her with each ignorant comment, passive-aggressive remark, eye-rolling smirk about witchcraft. Carlton thought Kyle latently mocked her, and she did. I think the Kyle/Camille dynamic was similar. Kyle looks for reasons to judge. Camille, who was sensitive about being judged, perceived this. Whether or not that particular comment was judgmental is immaterial.

 

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The Dinner Party from Hell: So much ink has been spilled on TDPFH that it’s almost pointless to recap. It’s so elegant in its simplicity. A liquored up medium with an e-cigarette and a directive to kill. The Morally Corrupt Faye Resnick, a nickname so concise, apt, and scathingly bitchy that it still dogs her almost a decade later. A litany of insults too petty to enumerate. There’s a reason TDPFH is still one of the best single episodes in Real Housewives history. It needs no sales pitch. Watch, and enjoy.

(Sidebar: the reason Alison DuBois is so effective in this scene, and why Brandi will be so effective next season, is there’s a code of etiquette in Beverly Hills and Alison doesn’t follow it. She has no problem saying Kyle is a cuckold mean girl who takes it up the ass, and someone like Kyle has nothing to combat that. Outsiders will always be most effective in Beverly Hills at getting under people’s skin.)

(Sidebar sidebar: one of my favourite moments in the extended argument, and indeed any BH argument, is when Kim realizes none of the drama has to do with her and rams herself in by pursuing some pointless feud with Taylor that absolutely no one present cares about. Angel.)

 

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I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy: Of the many macabre storylines undertaken by Real Housewives and specifically RHOBH, the unspooling of the Richards sisters’ relationship is surely the most literary. I’ve said a million times before that it’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for the millennial set: Kim, the faded child star who clings to the fame of her youth and nurses a hotbed of resentments toward the younger sister who exceeded her; Kyle, forced to observe and endure her sister’s spiral into addiction and isolation and reckon with her own complicity in it. It’s weighty, often horrifying material.

I am and have always been a Kim partisan in their battle. I find her store of bizarre neuroses far more compelling than Kyle’s mundane ones. And while I’ll acknowledge all day long that Kim would be an emotionally taxing nightmare to have as a sister, there’s something in the way Kyle deals with the situation that I find very counterproductive and, frankly, often cruel. She’ll bend over backwards to cover up Kim’s addiction as a matter of public shame (there’s Big Kathy again…) but then go out of her way to put Kim on public blast as often as possible, as a way to declaring to the world the difficulty of what she has to go through. It’s very martyry and very Kyle, and I can’t help but feel she gets off a little too hard on her international platform to be The Together Sister.

In any case, whether you’re Team Kim or Kyle, the trauma that played out between them was spellbinding, and the limo fight remains one of the most breathtaking codas to a season in the history of the franchise: two sisters unleashing years of pain and accumulated grudges on one another in a symphonic crescendo of agony. So much of the season was about what was going unsaid between Kim and Kyle Richards; to see them whip out every potent nuke in their arsenal against each other felt horrifying and urgent. You stole my goddamn house still feels like the end of the world, and after Kyle’s subsequent outing of Kim as an addict, it seemed like there was no way the sisters could ever speak again. They’ve been up and down since, but none since that first blowout have felt like such an icicle to the chest.

 

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It Might Look Like I Have It All…: I’ll have more to say about Taylor Armstrong next season, which is of course when everything goes violently off the rails for her. But I have deep respect for her as presence despite her intense unlikeability as character, fulfilling as she does what I believe to be the show’s mandate around the ruined American Dream (it’s funny to me that LVP takes such an early distaste to her; she’s a perfect complement to Lisa’s menagerie of the damaged). The $50,000 birthday party for a four-year-old, complete with jewelry gifts for all in attendance, served as a thesis for the show’s early condemnation for and fascination with the wretched excess of Beverly Hills. That Dana Wilkey was the conduit for this event is a lovely piece of foreshadowing.

 

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Best Supporting Actor: I want to take an opportunity to give a shout out to the highly underrated Martin, a true mensch who did the work of the gods throughout BH1. Whether he was getting set up on a fruitless, doomed-to-failure blind date with Kim, or acting as the baffled bystander to the now-legendary Richards sister limo implosion, Martin was a fixture. It’s always worth acknowledging when some poor normie wanders unwittingly into the crossfire.

 

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The Permanent Houseguest: The LVP/Cedric storyline is, to me, a perfect encapsulation of the pervasive darkness of early BH. The grists of BH1 were the rivalry between Camille and Kyle, and the minefield of hurt feelings between Kyle and Kim. Lisa’s story is presented as a lighthearted sideshow. But let’s look at the specifics: here is this gay man, of indeterminate age and mysterious provenance, staying as a rent-free guest in Lisa’s mansion. He claims to be the product of rape, born to a French sex worker and abandoned in a telephone booth. No one can verify that this is true, and certainly Cedric’s depiction on the program suggests that at least some of it is lies meant to play on people’s sympathies and integrate him into Beverly Hills society, a claim he has no right to because he’s poor. The whole saga ends with a brutal off-camera confrontation when Lisa and Ken finally push him out the door and he explodes at them, disavowing their past kindnesses and explicitly adding them to the list of people who have abandoned him over his troubled life.

The Ballad of Lisa and Cedric has always been one of RH’s most elusive storylines to me. Cedric is an interesting character, desperate for some sense of belonging and family however he needs to wedge himself into it, but he’s plainly a con artist. Ken and Lisa claimed that he tried to blackmail them after the fact, and frankly, I believe them. But he’s made various claims about Lisa, about her egotism and deceit, the demands she makes of her friends and her willingness to fudge the truth in order to present a certain image of herself to the world, that ring completely true to how Lisa’s later storylines on the show will play out. Specifically, Lisa’s relationship with Cedric is an almost perfect structural echo of her later relationship with his friend Brandi. She pays a kindness to someone she perceives as an outcast, he avails himself of her friendship until he’s in her debt, and then she starts making uncomfortable demands. Resentment builds, the relationship sours, and it all ends with Lisa crying on camera about how no good deed goes unpunished.

That’s the M.O. of LVP. She adopts an abused animal, it turns on its owner, and it needs to be put down. I haven’t figured out whom I believe between Cedric and Lisa. I consider them both unreliable sources. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between their two accounts. Very fraught stuff either way.

 

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And None For Adrienne Maloof: Bye.

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