Desperate housewives, wife-swappers, and the women of Bravo.
Wives are hot right now. During Sex and the City's original run, its Carrie Bradshaw, an urban bachelorette, was television's symbolic woman. After Carrie toddled away in 2004, the dames of ABC's cunningly polished soap opera Desperate Housewives replaced her at the center of pop-cultural female fantasy. The show became a hit not just because it was funny and foxy; it lucked into a moment when the audience was hungry for domestic cheese. For whatever reason, the tube is now popping with tales focused on wifedom—burlesques of matrimony, parables of housekeeping, and lazy daydreams of back-door men.
Both Wife Swap (ABC)—it isn't what it sounds like, but can a swingers reality show really be so far away?—and the identically themed Trading Spouses (Fox) beat Desperate Housewives to the air by a few months and both are still going strong. Monday night on Wife Swap, a fitness nut and a woman raising her kids to be pleasant sloths switched homes for two weeks. It was, as usual, a hoot. The show encourages you to reflect on parenting, and whoever it is that puts together the soundtrack would seem to have both an excellent sense of humor and a grudging respect for Burt Bacharach.
Meanwhile, Footballers Wive$ (BBC America), sleazy from that dollar sign on down, has garnered itself an impressive amount of ink on the occasion of its third-season premiere. And why not? The show, set in the British soccer world, carefully explores a well-chosen set of themes—kinky sex, blind greed, dumb rage, trashy hairdos, and catfights choreographed with the utmost sophistication. Its sensibility is less soap-operatic than tabloid, and its main minx, played by an actress named Zoe Lucker, is possessed of a delicious snarl.
Such is the climate into which the reality show The Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) breezes this week. The raw material of its seven episodes comes from the lives of four women who live within a gated community called Coto de Caza and another, a divorcée, who has been cast out of that paradise. "This isn't just a place to live—it's a lifestyle," one of them says tonight, telling you all you need to know.
Jeana Keough is a former Playboy Playmate married to a former professional baseball player who took her as his bride in a kind of eugenics experiment: "My husband and his mother picked me out of several of his girlfriends because they thought I had the right build for their genetics." Jeana sells real estate. Kimberly Bryant has two perfectly lovely children and two perfectly spherical breasts. Jo De La Rosa is 24, which makes her nearly a generation younger than the other wives. Since moving in with her fiancé, she has become a "lady of leisure," which mostly involves moping around a McMansion in big fuzzy slippers. When not running a lucrative insurance brokerage, Vicki Gunvalson is busy living vicariously through her two teenagers. Vicki employs Lauri Waring, the wife who has fallen from grace. It says here in the press notes that the third episode will find Vicki and Lauri getting a home treatment of Botox in preparation for a big convention.
While Botox jokes are hardly fresh, they're clearly part of the story here, and Real Housewives strives to be comprehensive. Here is a craftily presented slice of America that makes room for guns, silicone, status anxiety, and sibling rivalry. The show's surface joys are identical to those of MTV's My Super Sweet 16—resentment mingles with superiority, and tasteless people conspicuously consume. But what makes the show something better than a guilty pleasure is the way that, after introducing its subjects as borderline-reprehensible cartoons, it allows them flickers of self-awareness or shows them trying their damnedest to be terrific parents. In other words, you can catch these wives being human in the moments when they're not simply playing house.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Stills from Real Housewives of Orange County by Dave Bjerke/Bravo. Stills on the Slate home page: from Footballers Wives courtesy BBC America; from Desperate Housewives by Danny Feld/ABC; Still on the Slate home page from Wife Swap by Paul Trantow/ABC.