The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET) is the third iteration of a reality-soap franchise that documents the most exhilarating developments in nouveau riche vulgarity. The original concentrates on five women living safe behind the jewel-encrusted battlements of a gated community in Orange County, Calif., where they make stabs at being adequate parents while attempting, surgically and sartorially, to extend their own girlhoods. The second installment features the smooth, hard shells and delightfully pathetic affectations of a makeshift clique in New York City. These dames exist to caricature the pretensions of every status-minded Gothamite short of Mrs. Astor; at times, the follies seem designed to inspire New Yorkers to renounce all possessions but the cab fare to the admissions office of the nearest ashram, kibbutz, or ascetical sleep-away camp. One might almost forgive the good citizens of Atlanta if they reacted to Bravo's depiction of their city by reanimating William T. Sherman so that he could burn it down again.
The latest edition, with its predominantly black cast, brings some fresh flavor to this little empire's examination of expensive bad taste. The producers have encouraged their subjects—it can have required only the slightest effort of persuasion—and edited their footage such that the central plot of The R.H. of A. is a duel between divas. The more unappealing of the two is stern, cold, leonine, faintly desperate Sheree, who explained early on that she is in the process of divorcing an NFL offensive tackle and expecting a handsome lump-sum settlement. The lifestyle to which she has become accustomed is quite silly. Her entourage includes a "PR girl" (plainly seen to be subcompetent) and a "creative director" (presumably deranged). In the first episode, a shopgirl convinced Sheree to buy a purse by alleging that the cowhide—or snakeskin, or raptor pelt, whatever it was—had been treated with Botox. I dare you to imagine what the aesthetic qualities of a product boasting such a selling point might be. And I am secure in the knowledge that Sheree, owning one, knows that she's better than me. "I was upper-middle-class growing up," she says, "but I left that behind."
Her nemesis, the bubbly NeNe, claims far humbler origins, if her hootchie-ish attire and lively inattention to bourgeois propriety are fair indications. NeNe has elevated bralessness to a state of mind. She is the fun-loving type, and why not? Her husband, a local real-estate mogul, only occasionally scolds her for thinking of ordering carbohydrates at dinner. Preparing to attend a party at Sheree's, NeNe dressed with the intent to upstage—only to discover, at the door, that her name had been "accidentally" omitted from the list. Circumstances instead required NeNe to stand there in the driveway and yelp profanely at the publicist while the valet brought the Range Rover back around.
The other Atlanta "housewives"—the term here has no coherent meaning outside scare quotes—are DeShawn, Kim, and Lisa. Tender DeShawn, wife of baby-faced point guard Eric Snow, is new in town. Good help being hard to find these days, she spends much of her screen time interviewing prospective "estate managers" and overseeing the whining of her children while the personal chef makes them pancakes. Brazen Kim is supported by an unseen sugar daddy—"he's a great friend and a great provider"—and passes time between assignations by toying with a career in country music. There's a lovely moment when, receiving a record producer at the front door, she chucks her cigarette behind the hedge. Lisa, a real-estate agent, would be the most likable of the women by a long stretch if she weren't such a sickeningly indefatigable go-getter. She snared her husband in near-record speed, meeting and marrying an NFL linebacker in the space of 53 days. They just had a kid. "Having a 9-month-old, it revives you," she beams. Then she mounts a treadmill, because a girl's gotta stay in shape if she's going to flee mobs of young mothers enraged by lines like that.
Though Lisa is the only R.H. of A. with a discernible work ethic—as opposed to a steadfast commitment to work it, work it—her peers share something of her jock-ish perspective. On this show, people plot their social maneuverings and conspicuous consumption in the tones of halftime pep talks and SportsCenter sound bites. "I decided that [I was] really gonna step up my fundraising game," says DeShawn of the party with which she locally launches herself. (Her photo hogs the front of the glossy invitation.) Elsewhere, Sheree's "shoe stylist" claims that his client owns more than 1,000 pairs of heels: "But we're not done. We're not done. We will continue to add to the collection for sure." What is the ideal these female gladiators are battling to achieve? Well, when Sheree went out on the town with her "gay boyfriend"—a swishy confidante being another must-have accessory on this turf—she was very much taken with the luscious superficiality of performers at a drag show.
This fluff might be the perfect stuff for our time of financial crisis. On the one hand, the women are so easy to detest that the show plays like a class-warfare propaganda film—just the thing to get your bile healthily flowing. On the other, as Simon Doonan charmingly ventured last week in the New York Observer, these courtesans are performing a vital function by shoring up consumer confidence among people with the leisure time to dish about it: "Please don't knock these craven, uncultivated, whore-ishly attired self-involved wonderful ladies," Doonan wrote. "By displacing cocktail chatter about the impending recession/depression, the R. H. of A.'s allow us to sleep at night." The show lets us eat the rich like so much comfort food.