There's been a lot of talk about "prestige" television, and the fact that we're living in the age of "peak" TV. Most of the conversation focuses on hour-long, scripted dramas that feature tortured, rich, white people struggling in various ways. But prestige TV doesn't necessarily have to be this, and Bravo is making a significant contribution to the peak television moment with its Real Housewives franchise.
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Hear me out. I know you probably think that there's no place for trashy reality TV in this golden age, but I disagree. The Real Housewives of Bravo are offering a real contribution to the cultural moment. Here are all the reasons the Real Housewives is prestige television at its best.
Intense Narrative Drama
Although some of the early seasons of Housewives didn't offer a lot of substance, we've since seen some heartbreaking and poignant moments in the franchise, from Bethenny Frankel's contentious divorce, to Phaedra Parks' turning out to be a giant liar and saboteur, to Teresa Giudice's jail time.
Above all else, these shows are about storytelling. The Real Housewives doesn't flinch from the hard moments, and this is the very fiber of good TV. Of course the story is manipulated in a handful of ways, but it boils down to the story. Even though it's reality, be assured that there are flawlessly constructed plot arcs.
It contains all the elements of classical narrative, including character archetypes. Every series has its own villain, hero, seductress, sage or damsel in distress. These shape the series into a reliable and sturdy narrative structure that you find in all the prestige dramas of the time.
It's a Keen Study in Anthropology and Sociology
The best of TV examines the human condition, good and bad. We can all agree that some of the Housewives' antics represent the worst of human behavior, and this is exactly why it's so interesting to watch. In anthropological terms, we can chart our cultural development through the popularity of these shows.
The seasons with the highest amount of intrigue and melodrama draw the most audiences, obviously, but they also reveal our collective desires as a society. We're drawn to table flipping and fake cancer, and Housewives is merely a vehicle to deliver our darkest compulsions.
If you want to know more about a society, you have to examine what they collectively admire and participate in, and Bravo's series are definitely artifacts of the collective culture. In simpler terms, the sheer fact that Americans like and watch the Housewives establishes their importance. Like it or not, whether you think they're trashy or not, it's critical programming.
It Tells Women's Stories
More to the point, it allows women to tell their own stories, however ugly or embarrassing they might be. The cast of these shows are performing, no doubt, but they have a say in that performance. They are actual, human women, living their own lives, albeit lives that most of us can't really relate to.
If you compare the amount of scripted shows that feature an all-female cast to the Housewives franchise, there's no question about the fairness of representation. Prestige TV, in recent years, has been mostly about telling the story of a troubled white man. These shows are about troubled women, and it's refreshing that we get to see how they choose to represent themselves.
Perhaps our love for the Housewives is a rejection of the June Cleaver/Donna Reed paradigm. These women aren't performing traditional gender roles, although the word "housewives" is built right into the title of the show. The women are open about their professional pursuits, their libidos, their struggles with their husbands and their roles as parents. We're looking at actual women -- faults, Botox, garish diamonds and all. Not male-constructed representations of women, drawn, it seems, without ever meeting a human female.
It Provides an Outlet
Let's face it. Most of our favorite shows, like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or Dexter, are about unspeakable things we will never relate to. We connect to the humanity of the characters, sure, but we disconnect from the actions.
On the other hand, the Housewives show creates a safe space for us to interact with characters we feel contempt for, yet feel superior to them. For some reason, we never held it agains Walter White for making meth, so we couldn't ever get mad at him. But we're ready to string Vicki Gunvalson up for helping to fake her boyfriend's cancer.
We use the Housewives as an outlet for own lives. We see ourselves in these women far more than we do in the Khalessi or Dexter, so they stand in the gap for many viewers. The audience investment is one of the most important markers of prestige television.
There is no other successful franchise currently airing that covers such a diverse range of women. The show may have started as a white woman's narrative, but it has since developed into one of the most inclusive efforts on television right now.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta broke ground as one of the first all-black reality shows, and continues to tell the story of their community. If you can't watch the season 9 reunion and NOT think this is peak TV at it's best, what are we even doing here? Hand these women an Emmy right now.
The franchise has featured successful Latina women in the Miami installment, and the Potomac ladies are the first of the franchise to include women of mixed race. This is more than we can say for most of the "best drama" Emmy winners of the last decade.
Above all else, TV should be fun and entertaining, and peak TV should be the most enjoyable of the bunch. Whether it's dark and twisted or silly and frothy, the Housewives deliver on this promise. You can enjoy this show, for the most part, and feel downright entertained.
Do you think Bravo is getting it right? Would you consider the Real Housewives series prestige TV? Let us know what you think in the comments!
(Image courtesy of Bravo)