Season 13 of The Real Housewives of Orange County has started filming, and after the notorious dud that was season 12, it feels like an opportune time to look to the past and take stock. What worked, and what sucked? Throw on your Sky Top, iron your dress pants, and dust off your J. Lo sunglasses. It’s time to rank every season of RHOC, from worst to best.
12. Season Three
The early seasons of RHOC get a bad rap for being slow, stuffy and dated. No stretch of episodes exemplifies these qualities more than season three. Consider the cast: Jeana. Lauri. Quinn. An absent Tammy, who cedes almost all of her personal footage to her daughters as they carry out their late father’s dying wish and act as promo models for his sleazy energy drink. We get the first stirrings of honest-to-God inter-Housewife drama between Jeana and Vicki, and we’re introduced to a young upstart named Tamra Barney who will soon bend the show to her will. But by and large, nothing happens. Skip this one.
11. Season Two
Better than its successor, but not by much. Season two still exemplifies the worst of early RHOC — a long sizzle reel of vapid teenagers, conservative politics, and the encroaching sense that none of these people truly deserves what they have (a karmic score to be settled in approximately three years — thanks, real estate bubble!). Still, there’s a couple of gems to be mined here: Vicki’s surprise visit to Michael in Colorado remains one of the most iconic glimpses of her narcissism, Jo’s attempt at a singing career is a seminal moment in the Housewives musical canon, and long before Porsha and Kenya come to blows, there are Taylor and Michelle: two teen angels who get into a slap fight at a photoshoot for no other reason than our entertainment. Thanks, girls, whoever you are.
10. Season Twelve
After an almost decade-long hot streak, the O.C. finally turns out a dud. The pitched animosity between Vicki, Tamra and Shannon, the show’s unofficial stars, is impossible to bridge. The divide leaves a weak supporting cast to plug up the gaps with solo footage — and if you aren’t into Meghan’s baby, Peggy’s cars or Lydia’s husband’s balls, then too bad for you. By the time we reach the cast trip to Iceland, a genuine crucible of fascinating psychosis, it’s too little, too late.
9. Season One
Welcome to Coto de Caza, where the fences have gates, the houses have pools, and the women have breast implants — 85 percent of them, anyway. Before there were NeNe, Bethenny, Lisa and Teresa, there was this look into the lives of five nobodies from California’s most insufferable affluent community. You won’t find arguments or a dramatic reunion or even coherent storylines. But you’ll see the origins of the franchise, a young Vicki Gunvalson as a garden variety narcissist instead of a mutated Bravolebrity hypernarcissist, and of course… Jo and Slade. As with all things, we return to Jo and Slade. Look upon them and remember the worst relationship you ever had.
8. Season Nine
In a post-Gralexis era, the show needed fresh talent to usher it toward new horizons. Enter: the intoxicating mania of Shannon Beador. The cast chemistry isn’t quite right here (there’s not enough women to compensate for forgettable newbie Lizzie and the most toxic performance of Heather Dubrow’s Housewives career), but Shannon utterly owns her debut season with her signature mix of righteous outrage and sanity-consuming meltdowns. Best supporting actress goes to Tamra, who for the first time in a decade is finally, truly caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
7. Season Five
Building on its excellent season four, RHOC continues to amp up the drama. Jeana, the last non-Vicki hold-out from the show’s early days, departs, leaving Alexis Bellino, a blow-up doll full of holy water, to take her place. Lynne gets a face lift, then gets evicted. Gretchen finds herself in the only romantic situation more depressing than an engagement to a dying man: dating Slade Smiley. And in an explosive conclusion, Tamra finally calls time on her hideous marriage to Simon. Tamra being Tamra, she knows to wait until the finale. Girl’s a pro.
6. Season Six
There’s some decent background stuff here: new girl Peggy is fine, Alexis is finding her stride as a delightful televisual sideshow, and Vicki finally, mercifully pulls the trigger on her marriage to Donn. But really, this is the ultimate Tamra season, as she finally allows herself to come fully untethered and spray sulfuric acid all over her enemies — especially, and literally, Jeana Keough, whom she drenches in wine in RHOC’s most enduring image.
5. Season Eight
A charming season with a solid cast and good pacing. Lydia arrives for a likeable first go (shame about the encore). Lauri Peterson returns in a flash of unlikely genius, with a store of years-old Vicki vendettas to ineptly pursue. Alexis starts the season on the outs before Gretchen assumes pariah duty for the final stretch (not that it matters since they both get fired anyway). All in all, season eight is a fluffy set of episodes with lots of fun trips and arguments to chew on… until the eleventh hour detour into darkness, as Briana eviscerates Brooks in a breathtaking reunion climax. Extra credit: watch the one-off special about this season for fun anecdotes about Vicki verbally and physically abusing production!
4. Season Seven
So much fun stuff in this one. Heather Dubrow joins the cast (I’m not a fan, but it undeniably marks a new era for the show). Vicki and Gretchen have it out at an ’80s-themed bunco party. Alexis takes on her new job as a lifestyle reporter for Fox 5 News before getting utterly buried by the rest of the cast. After years of virulent hatred, Gretchen and Tamra dabble in friendship for no evident reason besides boredom. But the most important story thread of all belongs to Vicki, as we finally meet her new boyfriend, Brooks, who seems a little too good to be true…
3. Season Four
The season that changed the game. Until now, it’s all been very quiet and documentary, as the women filmed almost exclusively with their families and interpersonal conflicts between cast members took place off-camera via email. Season four sees a new world order of predator and prey. The head of the beast? Tamra, the hottest Housewife in Orange County. The unsuspecting gazelle? New girl Gretchen Rossi, a dimwitted gold digger on the verge of a painful lesson about trust. Also new to the game is queen of denial Lynne Curtin, who never met a problem a vision board couldn’t solve. Where once they were segregated, the women are now shoved together at every opportunity. Bloodshed ensues.
2. Season Ten
God, this was a tough call. On any given day, season ten is in contention for my top season, and there’s one reason why: Cancergate. The saga of Brooks Ayers faking cancer as an increasingly indignant Vicki sings his praises to the world, only for the whole scam to unravel at the behest of Meghan King Edmonds in the strongest rookie performance in Housewives history… fascinating. Gripping. RHOC more than any other franchise works best as a glimpse into the absolute darkest aspects of human nature. In that regard, season ten is king.
1. Season Eleven
Season eleven is my choice for not only the best season of RHOC, but potentially the most underrated Housewives season of all time. As longer seasons go, it’s impeccably paced, flowing beautifully from the early drama between Shannon and nightmare newbie Kelly Dodd, to the ATV accident at Glamis, to the hellish cast trip to Ireland, with very little downtime in between. There are lots of fun fights (Shannon’s ’70s party! The sushi restaurant! The airport van ride from Hell!). And there’s the lingering question of how wounded O.G. Vicki can possibly reintegrate with the group after her utter fall from grace. In terms of variety, complexity, chemistry, and sheer raw passion, season eleven is hard to beat.
Responses? Rebuttals? Think I’m full of shit? Got proof that vindicates Brooks Ayers once and for all? Sound off in the comments below!