The special horror of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

What you're watching.
May 11 2009 8:28 PM

Things Rank and Gross in Nature

The real housewives of the Garden State.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Click image to expand.
The Real Housewives of New Jersey

The Real Housewives of New Jersey (Bravo, premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. ET) is the fourth installment of the hallowed docu-soap franchise about high-end tackiness and low-down bitchery, and it's not especially kind to the Garden State. The Orange County edition does communicate a sense of fun in a sun shining upon restricted-access lawns. The New York installment concisely evokes the thrilling venality that makes Manhattan so great while simultaneously giving Alex and Simon's corner of Brooklyn a bad name that may well keep rents down. The Atlanta iteration at least made the city look like a well-kept hotel atrium.

Rather too eager to exploit a Cosa Nostra caricature of New Jersey, the new show features a title sequence modeled on that of The Sopranos, its shots capturing the signage along the New Jersey Turnpike. That signage, as the initiated will frothingly tell you, is one of the elements that imbue a drive along the Turnpike with a unique brand of wretchedness. Would it kill them to be clear that you want Exit 13 for Staten Island? If the speed-limit signs were actually legible, then the speed limit would be seen to fluctuate constantly. The speed of traffic itself varies between 90 miles per hour and none, sometimes in the same lane. The roast beef sandwiches at the rest-stop Roy Rogerses get less meatlike with every visit. In featuring this nerve-spraining stretch of road so prominently, the show implies that the terrain is hostile to outsiders, the natives literally unyielding. It joins the novels of Philip Roth, the catalog of Bruce Springsteen, and the experience of loitering at the Short Hills mall as a key part of the state's cultural iconography. Trenton makes—the world takes—the soul aches.

When I say that The RH of NJ is the most synthetic installment of the show yet produced, I refer not to the cast members' investment in plastic surgery; the specimens of Orange County bionic science edge them out on that count. Rather, the drama queening in these parts is much too blatantly contrived. In the premiere, you can see the whole season's worth of conflict lurking in the foreshadows. The catfights get hyped as if arranged by Don King. The five housewives—raring to depict themselves as the heads of the Five Families—are terriblly aware of the requirements of reality stardom. Take Teresa, please, the wife of a man who runs a very successful construction business. She has a real talent for offering herself as the butt of this spectacle's irony. Teresa proclaims that she's not a stage mom even while coating her daughter's head in lip gloss at some deranged modeling contest. Her bust—her set of "bubbies," to use the local term of art—is modest, and she's contemplating enhancement, despite her husband being "more of an ass guy."

Teresa's frenemies are no less frantic in their willed cluelessness. The designated interloper is Danielle, who, with her strategically trashy fashion sense and her microbikini revealing a stomach like corrugated metal, rather resembles Melissa Rivers as a fitness model. She is divorced and looking for a man. Though the other ladies will shortly be calling her a prostitute, for now they are feeling protective. Two of them shadow her as she heads out for a blind date with a guy she met on the Internet, screen name of GucciModel, fretting that the guy may be a homicidal nut who'll follow her home. This makes no sense. Danielle's camera crew would surely deter violence. Moreover, the supposed stalker would surely turn to stone upon witnessing the vast gaudiness of her McMansion.

Dina is the cold blonde too boring to think about at present. She claims to work part-time at interior designing, which seems to be code for buying dreadful sofas in order to launder money. Her sister Caroline embraces the Mafia-mama role with great relish, talking about the relative thickness of blood and water while the soundtrack warbles like Nino Rota Muzak. Their pal Jacqueline is warm, kind, and all-around reasonable in a way that should arouse profound suspicion. In this context, how are you supposed to trust a mom who actually disciplines her children?

Where Jacqueline expresses an interest in behaving like an adult, the other Housewives compete to be "best friends with their kids." Someone is bright enough to reference Amy Poehler's juicy turn as a nightmarish cool mom in Mean Girls, but the women generally believe this to be a viable parenting model. Thus The RH of NJ emerges as a camp consideration of postmodern maternity, complete with a wacky breast fixation. Many necklaces dangle many flashy crosses above much pushed-up cleavage. Spoiler alert: Having seen the housewives in the "flesh" last month at a press event, I must report that Teresa went in for bubby-embiggening. The surgeon makes—the audience takes. New Jersey offers America a special teat to suckle upon.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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