A Bravo reality show typically relies on some anthropological distance. The audience is invited to scrutinize a subculture either with admiration for its members' talents (Top Chef) or scorn for their alien lifestyles ( Real Housewives). Lately, though, Bravo is trying something different, offering its so-called "affluencer" viewers the chance to watch versions of themselves. The show 30 Under 30, now in production, will follow Inc.'s list of "coolest young entrepreneurs," and 9 by Design, which premiered last week, tracks the life of a fabulous New York design duo and their seven fabulous children. Judging from the first episode, the strategy has its kinks. My husband left the couch after about five minutes, so overcome was he by what he described as a combination of envy and loathing.
Bob and Cortney Novogratz are two Southerners who moved to New York and started a business flipping wrecked spaces into spectacular townhouses for the rich. Now they have everything you have, only bigger, better, and cooler. If you shelled out for one hipster pageboy cap, Bob has two, in wool and velour, plus a straw fedora and a ski cap he wears indoors. If your wife is still cute after birthing three kids, Cortney is a knockout, even at nine months pregnant. If you have a couple of French doors, they have a couple of … French garage doors. Not really, but you get the picture. "The show is like your life," Ken Druckerman, its executive producer, told the New York Times. "You have two children, they have seven. You live in a two bedroom apartment, they build a 9,000 square foot house on a highway where an S&M shop used to be. They are the more ingenious, creative, bigger family."
The show opens with Bob and Cortney sitting in their light-filled living room explaining how their design philosophy and their child-rearing philosophy are one and the same: They don't "ask permission" how to raise their kids or build their buildings; they're "risk takers," they say. The result is that they move two or three times a year with a convoy of children who fit in perfectly with the latest décor. Most mortals succumb to some lifestyle compromises once children enter the picture, but not the Novogratzes. The children's names suggest exotic origins you can't quite place, or else a series from a Scandinavian design collection: Bellamy, Wolfie, Hollander, Five. The space above the children's beds is decorated with spoils from Art Basel. Needless to say, there is not a toy or toothbrush out of place until one of the children throws a book out of his crib. Bob even quizzes the kids on the origins of certain light fixtures. Paris? Italy? A police station? Sewing factory? "Guys, you gotta know your stuff!"
Normally envy is sweetened by a certain stubborn class pride. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway is absorbed by the Buchanans but has the satisfaction of watching them drink and philander themselves into upper-class misery. Yet the Novogratzes deny us even the comfort of being out of reach and dysfunctional. They are self-taught designers who started out with no connections, until they flipped their first house on West 19th Street and Suzanne Vega wanted to buy it. They both come from large Southern families that were solidly middle-class; Bob's father, for example, was an Army colonel. They have rough indeterminate accents that translate as the opposite of posh. And Cortney has an enviable practical survivor streak. In the first episode, at least, there is no sign of household help; she seems to clean, pack, feed the children, and find them a new house all by herself, even though she is nine months pregnant. Although the couple has made tens of millions selling their houses, they talk about saving money and going broke. The only hint that they have strayed from their working-class roots comes on a work site, when Bob—maybe because his jeans are too tight—has trouble hauling himself into the crane lift.
Though the Novogratzes "flip" houses, that is not exactly what they "do." In their view, the Novogratzes build houses for themselves, throw parties, and then rich people who come want to buy them. They are the real-life urban Joneses, from the recently released Demi Moore/David Duchovny movie—a couple that makes a living by inspiring envy in their neighbors. "What people seem to buy into is our lifestyle," says Bob, explaining the key to their success. "People kept coming and saying, 'Why don't you do this for us?' " This business plan, which requires them to be mobile purveyors of cool, also has the advantage of preventing Bob from getting rooted or domesticated or growing up in any way. He and his sons fall under the new masculine taxonomy outlined by the Ben Stiller character in Greenberg: "All the men out here dress like children and the children dress like superheroes."
The commenters on the Bravo site predictably complain that Bob is "egomaniacal," "selfish," and a "Peter Pan." But is he truly a villain or does he just play one on TV? Throughout the first episode, he aggressively acts like an asshole. The family has a week to move out of its house, and he promises his wife he will spend the day looking for a temporary place for them. Instead, he spends it on the site of their new project, supervising how the workers put up some boards painted by a "hot new artist" in London, all the while lying to his wife. "Take me to Thompson and Grand," he says to a pretend cabbie, when Cortney is on the phone. Finally, Cortney has to waddle out of the house and find a place herself.
But this is not the kind of clueless asshole behavior that afflicts, say, Jon Gosselin or the hapless husbands of the Real Housewives. Bob knows that his wife is onto him and that it's his role to duck out from under her clutches. Like everything else about him, his lying is flip and ironic and perfectly under control; he knows that the camera is following. He's just showing you, normal husband, how to push the line a little further, if only you had the guts to not "ask permission." In future episodes, they apparently hire a nanny and travel to Europe to pitch their new projects, children in tow. I will curb my envy enough to watch and pray my husband remains horrified, so he learns no new lessons from Bob.