Got to be 'Real'

Real Housewives of New York City reads as an uptown-downmarket update of Edith Wharton
"Think of my vagina as a vase"

TV ADDICTION If you can ignore the resulting three-ring circus of gossip — Countess LuAnn de Lesseps breaks up with her no-account cheating Count! Kelly Bensimon arrested for boyfriend beating! Alex McCord nude! — swirling off this Real Housewives of Orange County spinoff, The Real Housewives of New York City gets my vote as the most consistently toothsome entry into the Real Housewives franchise. Now approaching its May 5 season finale, the reality TV series reads as an uptown-downmarket update of Edith Wharton, albeit brand-crazed (designers, of course, get considerable love, but these enterprising housewives are also busy building their own brands) and considerably less tragic (unless you count the McCord couple's over-the-top ensembles).

And thanks to some brilliant editing, Jane Austen would have had a hearty, tea-steeped chortle over the Brooklyn Bridge-wide disjunctions between these housewives' socialite pretensions and more rough-and-tumble actions. It's tough to beat last season's climactic clash between crazy-eyed Ramona Singer and the comically striving McCords when Alex violated a girls-party theme dinner by bringing her attached-at-the-hip spouse Simon, coupled with a conversation lightly spinning around the idea, "What is class?"

Yet, in line with Austen, class — both in terms of proper behavior and the various social gradations on view — continues to be in session as this season's recurring leitmotif. Attempts at behavioral instruction often wonderfully backfire: from the instance when the Countess told guests at a tribute-benefit for her and her husband to essentially shut up, to the episode in which ex-Elle Accessories editor Bensimon ditzily dresses down Bethenny Frankel, a meet-up that succeeds in making Bensimon look not only insanely stupid but horrendously snobby. Hypocrisy among the cognoscenti, who seem generally non-cognizant, persistently rears its dual heads.

Ready to call it all out is Frankel, the outsider chef busily establishing her "Skinny Girl's Martini" and other business ventures, and the odd woman out since she isn't and has never been an actual wife, let alone kept up a sprawling house. She functions as the closest thing to an Austenian heroine here. Salty, highly entertaining wisecracks roll off her hardened single-girl shell in rapid succession ("Think of my vagina as a vase — and if you've had sex with me it's time to send flowers.") As much as I appreciate the yenta feistiness of Jill Zarin or the American-Indian-girl-strikes-it-rich forthrightness of de Lesseps, I identify most with the non-wife who's attempting to keep it really real — especially during a season centered on charity events in the context of a slimly acknowledged recession, amid deeds that seem to have as much to do with building social capital as raising vanishing funds.

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