When Vicki Gunvalson proclaimed "I'm the OG of the OC, everyone else is just a copy" during the opening moments of RHOC's Season 10 intro, I just about shouted "Woo-hoo!" from my couch. As I pointed out in my recap of the season premiere, it's my favorite tagline of the bunch and after a decade on Bravo, Vicki deserves to wear the title like a veritable badge of honor. Like Vicki, each city in the franchise has Housewives who have been there from the very beginning. NYC has Ramona Singer, Atlanta has NeNe Leakes, Teresa Giudice holds down New Jersey and Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards reign over Beverly Hills. Even Miami, which is sadly dead in the water at the moment, had Adriana de Moura and self-proclaimed "Mayor of Miami" Lea Black. Essentially, each city in the franchise had its very own OGs. That is, until NeNe announced this week that she won't be returning for Season 8 of RHOA.
Out of all the casting news to come out of the Bravo universe in the past few weeks, NeNe's departure is surely the biggest blow. While not exactly out of the blue - the queen of shade has seemed increasingly dissatisfied with her position on the show for the past two seasons - NeNe's decision sends us into uncharted territory. Never in the history of the franchise have any of the shows been left without an original cast member. Through all the casting shakeups season after season, there was always someone left who'd been there from the very first episode. The whole situation has really gotten me thinking about the potential repercussions for the series. So, rather than do a post about about why NeNe's leaving, for this week's Feature Friday I'm looking at the Housewives narrative and examining why the OGs' presence in each city matters when it comes to storytelling.
The original 'Wives have gained seniority in their respective casts, and for good reason. In the game of Survivor that is the Housewives, they've each outlasted the competition, as the likes of Jill Zarin, Caroline Manzo and Danielle Staub have fallen by the proverbial wayside. Their salaries may be the highest (NeNe's departure will free up a rumored one million dollars per season in Atlanta), but that too is well-deserved. Each season, the original ladies continue to bring the drama and ratings and, perhaps more importantly, viewers like them. Teresa's table flip in the Season 1 finale of RHONJ remains one of the most OMG-worthy moments of the series. Personally, Kyle Richards has always been my all-time favorite Housewife, and how many years has she had the one of the important seats next to Andy at the reunion? Five in a row. Not even fellow Beverly Hills OG and self-proclaimed leader of the pack Lisa Vanderpump can say that. OG of the OC Vicki Gunvalson has been entertaining viewers with her penchant for drama and quirky personality for a solid decade now. If that doesn't deserve a woo-hoo, then what does?
Viewers were first introduced to Vicki when the Real Housewives of Orange County premiered in 2006, as she shrieked "I don't want to get old!" (This was, of course, when taglines were less deliberate than they are now). Ten years ago, there was no blueprint for personality-based reality TV, largely due to the fact that successes like the Housewives franchise hadn't created it yet. Likewise, there was no one to hand the original women a book of instructions on how to play the reality TV game. Much more risk was involved for the OG Housewives. Yes, putting yourself on TV is a vulnerable experience no matter how far into a series' run you join, but later Housewives have the advantage of knowing the formula. In many cases, they've watched at least bits and pieces of the show they're joining, if not entire seasons. The original Housewives were essentially the pioneers of the genre, and we learned along with them as the franchise developed into something of a well-oiled, dramatic machine.
To get some added perspective on this issue, I turned to a couple of outside sources. First I talked to my mom. At face value, my mom may not seem like the most logical choice. She doesn't actually watch any of the Housewives shows - my parents don't even have Bravo in their cable package - and claims not to understand where my love for the Housewives came from. Her confusion over and general disdain for the franchise is funny to me because my love of all things Bravo can actually be traced back, in part, to her. When I was growing up, my mom was obsessed with Days of Our Lives. She watched the soap opera religiously (much like how I watch the 'Wives every week) to the point where as a kid, I was as familiar with John, Marlena and Stefano as I was with the Power Rangers. In fact, when I told her that the actresses who played Billie Reed and Kristen DiMera were joining RHOBH last year, it was finally common ground for us. Seeing as Andy Cohen has christened reality TV "the modern-day soap opera", the parallel between my mom's Days obsession in the '90s and my obsession today is pretty clear.
The rotating cast of Housewives functions much like the cast of a long-running soap like Days of Our Lives. By the point in each show's run that we've reached with the Housewives, it can sometimes feel like a rotating door season after season. These yearly cast shakeups heighten the stakes for the 'Wives: they feel the pressure to cement their place on the show and it's imperative for viewers to connect with them. Done successfully, we end up with fan favorite newbies like Lisa Rinna and Eileen Davidson. Otherwise, we have a Joyce/Carlton situation on our hands and they're gone before we can say "witch" My mom pointed out that, despite cast members coming and going, the long-running veterans provide an anchor for the viewer. Yes, fans can and do connect with newer characters, but their emotional investment tends to be far greater in the lives and stories of the originals. My mom also pointed out that, for a viewer, losing the last original cast member like NeNe naturally takes away from the richness, continuity and history of the show. And she's right - come Season 8, no one on RHOA will have lived through the beginning of the Big Papa controversy or been there for "close your legs to married men!" Season 1 essentially becomes a memory of the past, tied to the upcoming season in name only.
I also turned to an acquaintance from high school who's become a writer in the years since our graduation to get a second, more academic opinion on this subject. Approaching the concept from the perspective of a consumer, she made a number of very good points. "From the very beginning, you are trying to establish a relationship between the character (or person, in this case) and the audience," she said. "When you start taking those characters out of the picture, you lose that emotional connection you've developed between the character (or person) and the audience. Some people will literally stop reading a book after their favorite character dies. The more characters you take out that your audience is connected with, the more difficult it can be for them to be interested in the show." As for the implications of having the last remaining original cast member exit? She predicted that the natural consequence would probably be losing a portion of the audience. "Can a story still be just as good after all the original characters exit?" my friend said. "It can be done (all rules can be broken, if handled right), but is very difficult to pull off. In a way, it feels like a different story because the story isn't following the same people, the people the audience first fell in love with or became interested in."
A great example of the emotional connection viewers develop with a long-standing cast member is the OG of RHONY, Ramona Singer. Now, I'm an unabashed fan of the Ramonacoaster, but I think even her detractors would say they can't begin to imagine New York without her pinot grigio-fueled Turtle Time. Ramona's life has changed drastically over the course of her seven years on the show. When RHONY first premiered in 2008, Ramona was a self-proclaimed "sexy mom" to 12-year-old Avery and was happily married to Mario. Over seven years, we've seen her renew her vows, start new companies, become one half of Frick and Frack and send Avery off to college. Fast forwarding to this current season, we've also now watched her deal with the fallout of her husband's infidelity, begin going through a divorce and become a brand new version of herself in the process. These are big life events that I as a viewer have experienced alongside Ramona, even if through a TV screen. That's why this past week, I cried right along with her as she lamented over the state of her broken marriage and sobbed in Bethenny's arms. Yes, I sat on my couch crying over the life of a 58-year-old Housewife from New York City whom I've never personally met, but whose life I've followed for the past seven years. In a way, the moment was an emotional payoff for fans who have watched Ramona's life unfold on screen since she burst into our living rooms and lives in all her Ramotional glory, more than a half decade ago. And as much as I love them, I simply haven't spent as much time with Heather or Carole or Kristen to illicit that type of deeply-rooted response.
Ultimately, the point is that the original 'Wives matter a great deal to the Housewives franchise. No, each show isn't about one single person, but each woman's contribution as an original cast member is virtually incalculable to the value of her show. The franchise simply wouldn't be the pop culture touchstone it is today without Vicki, Ramona, NeNe, Teresa, Lisa and Kyle carrying the torch as the leaders of the pack year after year. Perhaps the same could be said for reality TV altogether. The weight has been on these 'Wives' shoulders for years - in Vicki's case a decade! - to carry their respective shows and serve as the faces of the franchise. Losing any of the OGs, like we're bracing ourselves to do with NeNe, will drastically change the dynamic of the women, shifting the pecking order like tectonic plates and coming out of the other side of the metaphorical earthquake to a completely changed landscape. No matter what, the show will never be the same. After all, they're the OGs and everyone else...is just a copy.