A Real Housewives Retrospective: The Evolution Of The Franchise
On March 21 2006, the first instalment of the Real Housewives franchise premiered as a quaint show based around the families of women living in Orange County and now twelve years later, the show has taken on a life of its own, expanding to nine US cities, creating a template for dozens of other reality shows and establishing Bravo as the thriving network it is today. The Real Housewives are a worldwide phenomenon and to honour the thirteenth premiere of the debut city, here is a year by year look at the successful reality TV empire.
2006 - 07: The Beginning
The first three seasons of Orange County were very different than the drink tossing and bitchy commentary we see today. The women had limited interaction with each other and the show largely focused around their family problems. They were boring in comparison to the dramatic seasons we are used to now but they still gave us Vicki yelling about family vans, OC Angels and those fugly skytops. There was an innocence amongst the women who hadn't been affected by fame or even drama with the other ladies. They were just living their lives in the OC and a camera just happened to be following them.
2008: Spinning Off
In 2008 the franchise expanded to the east coast. The New York drama mainly consisted of Ramona and Jill’s Hamptons tennis match, however, their OG cast was the best of any city with four of their five OGs becoming strong power players across the franchise. Atlanta also had a strong debut with the beginning of NeNe & Kim’s infamous feud, the She by Sheree fashion show with no fashions and one of the best Housewives reunions of all time. The dramatic flair of the two new cities lent itself to the OC’s fourth season with the arrival of Gretchen and her potential gold digging ways causing drama in the form of the Naked Wasted saga which sparked the iconic Tamra vs Gretchen feud and changed the tone of the show from a mellow family orientated docuseries to the bitchy friendship based format we see today. Jo De La Rosa also got the first spinoff, Date My Ex, with Housewives hunter Slade, which only lasted one season.
2009: Pay Attention PUH-lease
2009 was when the franchise got popular. Fame rocked the sophomore cities with the “press” becoming a constant source of fights. Atlanta had a phenomenal season as the drama between NeNe, Kim and partially Sheree continued to rage with the iconic wig shift and potential choking. Kandi Burruss also begun her tenure and famously helped Kim release the first Housewives single "Tardy For The Party." New York didn't yet reach the drama level of its sister cities but Bethenny’s friendship with Jill and feud with Kelly cemented her as the fan favourite.
The OC’s fifth season laid the foundation for many future seasons as Vicki finally became the last OG standing when Jeana Keough left, Slade Smiley re-emerged as Gretchen’s new boyfriend, Tamra got divorced and Alexis “Jesus Jugs” Bellino made her debut. Jersey also premiered as the first city with cast members who were related which created a whole new dynamic and gave us the infamous table flip. 2009 was the first time we saw soap opera style drama being displayed and marked a turning point in the course of empire.
2010: The Golden Age
2010 was the golden age for the franchise due to the thriving drama which was largely caused by the success of certain cast members which resulted in jealously throughout the cities adding a deeper layer to the on-screen feuds. Cast trips had also become a staple in every city. Every instalment delivered this year with NeNe & Kim’s feud continuing to be at the centre of drama in Atlanta with their iconic bus fight. Long-standing Housewives Cynthia and Phaedra were added to the lineup as one of the first Housewives to show their wedding and birth on camera. New York had one of the best seasons in franchise history with Scary Island, the release of "Money Can't Buy You Class" and the demise of Jill and Bethenny’s friendship which contributed to Frankel's success in earning her own spinoff.
New Jersey returned and featured the height of the Danielle Staub drama which resulted in the epic country club brawl, explosive reunion and saw the exit of the resident Prostitution Whore. Two new cities were also added with DC becoming the first instalment to be cancelled after one season due to the mishegas of the Salahi’s crashing the White House. Beverly Hills also premiered the same year beginning it’s run as a rating powerhouse for Bravo due to their over the top lifestyle, that dinner party from hell and the deep-seated history between the Richard sisters due to Kim’s addiction which was outed by Kyle in the finale. Looking back this was the most eventful and authentic year due to the recent exposure and popularity all the casts had gone through.
2011: GO TO SLEEP!
A result of the entertaining, juicy drama that 2010 had provided us with created a darkness in the following year due to their reactions from watching the show back and the continued media attention. 2011 was dark across the board. Bethenny’s exit in New York created an instability in the deeply divided cast and left them with nowhere to go, which was evident at the reunion. The darkness continued with the suicide of Taylor Armstrong’s abusive husband in Beverly Hills’ sophomore season and even followed to Jersey when Melissa and Kathy joined the show, exposing their family feud between fan favourite Teresa Giudice with that infamous christening acting as a catalyst for their conflict.
Season six of OC also saw Tamra Judge become the star with her divorce, continuing feuds with Gretchen, Jesus Jugs and Slade and that epic finale wine toss. Miami premiered but its initial season wasn’t up to par with the dramatic antics of the other shows which led to poor ratings and the first and only live Watch What Happens Live reunion which turned out just as well as it sounds. This year showed the eventual consequence that previous dramatic and entertaining seasons have on the casts.
2012: Turning The Tables
By 2012 the franchise was a bonafide success, however, it was also the year of renewal. New York was the first city to completely shape up the show by replacing half the cast and revamping the taglines with a modern style, but the new lineup wasn’t well received by fans. While the shakeup damaged one show it completely revitalised another after Miami’s weak first season had their own revamp with four new women which gave the show an entirely new feel and created one of the best seasons in the franchise’ history. However, some cities proved their current cast had enough life left.
Atlanta and New Jersey made no changes to their casts and had arguably their best seasons. NeNe’s fame made her the undisputed Queen Bee of the show while her feud with Kim simmered as the wig-wearing Housewife got her own wedding special, pumped out some kids and distanced herself from the cast. The Gorga war was still raging on in Jersey, however, due to the previous season airing as they were filming it caused a rift between Teresa and fellow OGs Caroline and Jacqueline with the season ending with the iconic Strippergate controversy and one of the best reunions in any city. OC made minor tweaks by adding Heather Dubrow who became the voice of reason as the cast’s dynamic had a major shift with former enemies Gretchen and Tamra teaming up and feuding with Alexis and Vicki, who was now dating Brooks Ayers which caused tension in her relationship with Judge.
2013: Gone With The Wind Fabulous
New York took a year off after their failed shakeup, however, the franchise’s success was more evident than ever with three of the now six operating cities receiving spinoffs. In the OC Tamra got her own wedding show after the eighth season revolved around her engagement and reconnection with Vicki which left Gretchen on the outskirts of the group. Atlanta had their own revamp as OGs Sheree and Kim were replaced with long-term additions Kenya and Porsha who brought new life to the cast as Queen Bee NeNe was absent for most of the season due to her role on The New Normal. Atlanta’s success flourished in 2013 with the premiere of three spinoffs: Don’t Be Tardy, I Dream Of NeNe and The Kandi Factory.
Beverly Hills also had a strong season with the full-time additions of Brandi & Yolanda, Kim’s addiction storyline and the surrogate drama resulted in Adrienne Maloof's fall from grace and her infamously skipping the reunion. Their success and LVP’s status as fan favourite was also proven with the premiere of Vanderpump Rules. However not all the cities had good seasons. Jersey’s family war storyline ran out of steam with most of its fifth season revolving around therapy in the fractured group, which showed a shakeup was needed as most of the friendships had run their course. After a successful second season, Miami returned but its third season was lukewarm and the expensive production cost combined with their struggle to gain a strong viewership ultimately resulted in its cancellation.
2014: So Nasty, So Rude
Just as 2010 marked a year where the drama had reached another level, so did 2014. In this year the drama level rose to new melodramatic heights with Aviva’s leg throw in New York, Kenya and Porsha’s physical fight at Atlanta’s sixth reunion and Teresa and Joe Giudice going to prison on New Jersey. The franchise had changed once again to a place of absurdity where more intense fights and drama were expected. Atlanta retained the same cast and continued to be a ratings powerhouse for the network and New York's revamped lineup returned after a year off with Luann in a part-time role. 2014 was also a year of change with three of the five cities having their own shakeups that weren’t met with praise.
After long-standing Housewives Gretchen and Alexis were fired, the OC opened a new chapter as Shannon Beador began her tenure which showcased her troubled marriage due to her husband's affair and became the source of drama in her friendships but was unbeknownst to viewers at the time. The 90210 also said farewell to two OGs and Carlton & Joyce joined the cast but failed to fit in as the major arc revolved around the cast turning on Queen Bee LVP. In Jersey, Teresa and Melissa were the only cast members remaining from the previous season as three women were dropped (Caroline earned her own spinoff Manzo'd With Children) and Dina returned with three new women which were not well received by anyone. The season ended with Teresa being sentenced to 15 months imprisonment which left the show's future in question with their star player getting locked up.
2015: Don't Call It A Comeback
New Jersey took the year off while it’s star was in prison but her family had their own spinoff Teresa Checks In to capitalise on the scandal. The four remaining cities all had great seasons and nostalgia was clearly in. Most of the shows brought back OG women after their recent insane revamps proved unpopular and fans were missing the old school flavour of the shows. In the OC’s tenth season vintage Housewives Jeana, Tammy & Lynne all returned in guest appearances as the cast began to question Brooks' cancer and (spoiler) he didn’t have it which left Vicki on her own island and opened a new dark chapter across the franchises which hadn't been explored before.
Bethenny returned to New York after a three-year hiatus following her failed talk show and marriage and brought the show back from the dead, filling the voice of reason and matriarch role that was missing in recent years. NeNe had a tough year with most of the ladies turning on her in Atlanta which resulted in their only original cast member leaving the show. In the 90210 soap stars, Lisa Rinna and Eileen Davidson replaced the failed one season wonders of the past season and all the OG Housewives made appearances throughout the season. Brandi took a page out of the newbie's soap opera book by tossing wine and slapping people which led to her being fired and Kim Richards' relapse was also a major discussion amongst the group which also led to her being let go. Once the messy ladies of this franchise left, so did the drama.
2016: New Beginnings
Ten years after the franchise premiered its empire was larger than ever with the addition of two new cities: Potomac and Dallas. Both instalments weren’t that successful after they weren’t originally intended to be Housewives shows and were based around etiquette and charity which damaged their future reputation. Beverly Hills began its decline with Lisa Rinna taking over the villain role from Brandi & Kim and borrowed OC’s storyline questioning Yolanda’s Lyme disease and bringing LVP’s off-camera manipulation to become a centre part of the show once again. It wasn’t a terrible season but it was clearly lacking the magic we were accustomed to.
NeNe’s absence left a void in Atlanta even in their attempt to replace her with OG Sheree but they still managed to have a strong season with the lacklustre addition of Kim Fields and another physical fight. New Jersey also returned after their year-long hiatus due to Teresa being locked up and although newbies Siggy and Dolores were the show’s best additions in years, the season confirmed the end of Tre’s friendship with Jac and the position of the show as a tentpole show for the network. However not all the shows struggled, New York was revitalised with Tom’s cheating storyline and their epic Berkshires blowout, while the fallout of CancerGate in the OC, the biggest scandal ever, mixed with Kelly Dodd’s arrival, their Ireland trip and dune buggy crash culminated in magic for the original city. 11 years in and the two oldest cities remained on top of the Housewives food chain.
2017: Fix It Jesus
Following insane deep drama in several cities that they had never dealt with before the franchise begun chasing its tale. Fans were disgusted with Vicki when CancerGate initially happened but after Shannon and Tamra still hated her in season twelve everyone said “they should just get over it” and the issue was no longer about a cancer scam. The franchise had never dealt with such a big issue where in real life you would never speak again which resulted in a terrible season for the OC as the main power players refused to even communicate. New York had a successful season with Bethenny & Ramona reigniting their old beef, LesbianGate was probably the second biggest scandal following CancerGate when Phaedra was exposed for telling Porsha Kandi tried to drug and rape her which led to her firing but also amazing ratings in their prime time Sunday spot.
Jersey premiered in its eighth season with an obvious attempt to redeem themselves but even Danielle Staub’s messy return and Margaret Josephs could help them as most of the season revolved around a cake throw. Even with drama, the foundation of Jersey is bad and the cast isn’t the problem, the show is stuck in a dead-end. Beverly Hills still declined with Lisa Rinna being the only woman taking the initiative to drive the storyline and do something in a franchise of boring women. Following their failed first seasons Potomac and Dallas, more so the Texan city, returned with great additions, friendship struggles and vintage style drama which allowed them to provide way more entertainment than their older sister cities.
2018: New Sheriff In Town
For the last two years now the entire franchise hasn’t been performing at its best because due to social media and the press everyone knows the Housewives game so well and none of the women are willing to stir things up for the cameras like they used to and 2018 saw this boring trend continue. Beverly Hills had its worst season ever where Dorit’s annoying personality was the driving force for the majority of the drama. Even stronghold Atlanta had its struggles with the return of NeNe & Kim for their tenth season which caused their epic RoachGate drama and subsequently the death of Kim’s Housewives career at the reunion but due to Kenya taking a step back from her messy ways and Kandi now being blamed for not making up with Porsha, like Shannon and Tamra were in Cancergate, the show was greatly affected.
It’s not all bad, New York is delivering its best season ever with Luann’s arrest, Bethenny’s downfall as HBIC of the group and the ladies being their authentic selves, unlike other cities where they don’t show anything. Surprisingly Potomac is also having a strong third season which is being extremely well received due to the drama and entertainment that’s been missing in the older cities, however, the stigma around the newer cities means the ratings aren’t there for the show. OC, Dallas, New Jersey are still on the horizon for 2018. OC looks like it’s going to have a lot of fun moments with the women following their season 13 reunion hug and even if we don't get that much drama, watching them drink is better than last year. I don’t expect anything strong from New Jersey and the Dallas trailer promises big drama which shows the two newer cities are where the future of the franchise is due to the authenticity of their relationships and their need to work hard to remain on the network. In 2016 the strongest cities were the two oldest but two years later who would've thought Potomac and Dallas would take those positions?
Following twelve years on television maybe the Housewives have a shelf life? We've seen the life cycle of the franchise evolve from humble beginnings, to iconic drama, crazy absurdity across all cities and now an overall decline. All the shows seemed to peak in their first few years after their new fame and authenticity were the driving factors but after people had built businesses, scandals started chasing their own tales and the women understood the game of Housewives, the quality across the cities diminished while the newer shows are running circles around the instalments that made the franchise famous. I don't know where the franchise is headed but it can only go up from here.