The most recent episode of The Real Housewives of New York City, currently in its ninth season, picks up on November 5, 2016. “The election is three days away,” Carole Radziwill reminds us. The cast has decamped to the Hamptons for the weekend, and Bethenny Frankel is hosting Carole at her home in Bridgehampton. Carole is glad to be there because she’s suffering from election-induced malaise and anxiety. Naturally, Bethenny takes her to an acupuncturist to calm her nerves, because the practice has helped Bethenny handle her own stress — that which comes from a protracted, public, messy divorce. The two pals gab as they lie on acupuncture tables in adjoining rooms. Bethenny suggests Carole find a productive way to channel her energy after the election: “What about working for Hillary?” Carole finds the suggestion daunting, and counters with a rhetorical question, “And move to Washington, D.C.? I don’t know.” Of course, what Carole doesn’t know yet is that the chance to ponder such a move will never materialize.
No one has ever accused The Real Housewives of borrowing tropes from horror movies, but this season it’s unavoidable. We viewers know that Carole the Hillary Supporter’s fate is doomed; so far, she has only an inkling. Her concern and dread proved too prescient, a character insight foreign to reality TV. This series traffics in shit talk, not premonitions. Yet, three episodes into its ninth season, The Real Housewives of New York City has been forced to forge new ground as it contends with the mother of all deus ex machinas.
Carole is so deeply enmeshed in the election that her opening statement — the ones that Housewives runs instead of opening credits — has been rewritten to say: “In the politics of friendship, I win the popular vote.” This claim is up for debate, since both Bethenny and Ramona Singer have expressed frustration at their friend’s unwillingness to discuss anything else, and Ramona and Carole’s Hillary Clinton–vs.–Donald Trump spats have reignited in all episodes so far this season (as well as next week’s, based on the preview). The Housewives franchise was a revelation when it began, and nine seasons into the New York iteration, it’s still innovating. For the first time in the show’s history, a national (non-holiday) event has fueled story lines in consecutive installments.
Back in the Hamptons, Carole and Bethenny discuss the former’s plans for an election-night party, to which she has invited about 10 friends, including Ramona, though her attendance is unconfirmed. Last week, we saw Carole invite Bethenny and Ramona, and they both expressed hesitation about the event. Ramona, the subject of some obvious editing, says, “It’ll be very interesting to see what comes out with these emails — that the FBI has been holding, not holding …” Carole attempts to stay composed, with limited success, while Bethenny, donning a sexy cat costume and a black wig that she planned to wear for Halloween, accuses Carole of being a know-it-all who doesn’t listen. Everyone looked uncomfortable. Ramona has since declined the invitation, because, according to Carole, she’s neither informed nor interested enough. Bethenny is planning to attend, but she hardly looks eager to engage with the topic on camera, though she does attempt to comfort her friend.
Even if the thought of Carole’s election party gives them pause or makes them uncomfortable, Bethenny and Ramona shouldn’t be surprised. Carole’s political affiliations are part of what made her qualified to join the cast. She was never a housewife; she worked at ABC News for 15 years, which she will tell you at any opportunity, and is the author of two memoirs. But she was married to the late Anthony Radziwill, who was Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s nephew. Thus, Carole’s cousin-in-law was John Kennedy Jr., and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was a close friend until they died. Carole’s Kennedy connection made for an obvious background story when she joined the show in Season 5, and now it grounds her emphatic support for Hillary Clinton. Carole is the blue-blooded Democrat. Previously, her progressiveness was articulated by her relationship with a man over 20 years younger. This season it is articulated by her sheer terror over a Donald Trump victory.
On a previous season, Carole ran for a seat on her building’s co-op board, and her fellow castmates came over to make signs supporting her candidacy. If the most hyperlocal of campaigns deserved a gathering, of course a potentially historic election necessitates a party. Ramona’s main objection is conflict: “We’ll all argue with each other. I just don’t know if that’s a good thing.” Carole aptly responds, “Opposed to what we normally do? We argue about who didn’t invite someone to a party.” Herein lies the problem of the election for the Housewives. The women are used to cameras chronicling the dissolution of marriages, demise of friendships, ill-advised affairs, and wildly drunken nights. These are all developments of their own making, and agreeing to be on the show essentially assures that at least one of these events will happen — or if you are LuAnn, all of them. (LuAnn remarried on New Year’s Eve, thereby forfeiting her countess title. She is now LuAnn D’Agostino.) To be a Housewife is to be somewhat complicit in personal calamity. But none of them signed up to bear witness to a tidal wave.
For the cast to engage with the election on TV, they have to reveal aspects of themselves that previously hid outside the camera’s sight line; external events are discouraged because they do not feed the infighting that the show thrives on. Usually, when there’s a vague topic that the women are hesitant to discuss freely — such as the identity of Bethenny’s new boyfriend or where someone’s daughter is attending college — viewers can google to fill in the Mad Lib. But the core values, beliefs, and principles that often motivate political leanings were effectively off limits for the show and beyond search results. Viewers could extrapolate how their favorite woman might feel on a given topic based on the data the show provides, but there was little reason to wonder about or Google who your favorite Housewife voted for. Season 1 debuted in March 2008, making the 2016 presidential election the third to coincide with the show’s existence, though there have been no mentions of candidates Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Even though the women from this franchise are tied to a specific city, they could live in snow globes with little effect on the final product.
Ramona might not know it consciously, but she is wary of an election-night fight because it includes factors and actors she can’t control. When there’s a party snub to grapple with, the subsequent confrontation is as common to the Housewives genre as hair extensions. We know what that looks like: a tense interaction at a social event where empty pleasantries are exchanged, followed by a one-on-one to either settle the fight or establish that it will be a season-long grievance. Ramona, Carole, and Bethenny fighting over Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s agenda is too real for the contrivances of reality TV because there is no go-to forum to settle it. If the revelation of the 2016 election was a starkly divided country, how can this show easily and explicitly adjudicate who viewers should side with in a political debate? There must be villains; there must be sympathy. The right-and-wrong binary is particularly necessary for someone like Ramona, who uses her platform to sell pinot grigio, or Bethenny, who uses it to sell everything. The election introduces too many unknowns for all personal brands.
To the extent the audience does feel compelled to pick sides in this instance, Carole does little to win us over. She insists that she knows much more than her castmates, whom she accuses of parroting headlines when it comes to the notorious emails. It’s an inherently insulting suggestion (and also probably true), which is why we’re privy to her repeating this in multiple interviews and even to Ramona’s face. Insults are the lingua franca. Here, Carole’s political enthusiasm is not the passion of an engaged citizen, but the latest evidence of her tendency to play the Kennedy card to separate herself from her cohort.
At a dinner on this week’s episode, Carole and Dorinda have a bombastic, and quite familiar, side conversation about what they will do if they wake up November 9 to find Donald Trump has won. Dorinda sarcastically says it would compel her to tell her daughter that even strippers can end up in the White House. Carole can’t counter, because she can’t bear or process the idea at all. Meanwhile, as they express sentiments common (to me, at least) from the days and weeks leading up to the election, Bethenny and Ramona are at the other end of table discussing if Ramona will go to Carole’s party. The election itself — one of the most disruptive events so far of the 21st century — is secondary to the new main topic: Has Carole insulted Ramona, and does Ramona know anything?
By the end of this brief clip, the election has faded from interest. Ramona’s recalibrated the conversation to address a much hotter topic: whether or not Bethenny has addressed topless footage of her from more than 20 years ago with her 6-year-old daughter. For Ramona, it’s a transition so seamless than she didn’t even need to be prompted by Dorinda’s comments from a few moments earlier.
The Housewives has spread to multiple cities and spawned bona fide celebrities because it’s addictive. The ongoing infighting that spills over to celebrity gossip rags has created a self-sustaining ecosystem. The election threatened to pierce the bubble, because the Housewives machine has not previously had to interpret an event that every person in the audience experienced in real time. Instead of a well-crafted account of recent personal history, it’s a retelling of something everyone who watches remembers clearly, and the retelling is distorted. The conflict is not between two politicians, but friends who have yet to unanimously decided how to act out this part of their script. For the first time, the New York housewives can’t escape life outside of the show, and neither can viewers.
This post was updated to remove an erroneous reference to Carole Radziwill calling John Kennedy Jr. by the name “John John.”