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Inside the ‘Real Housewives’ Renaissance: How the Bravo Franchise Got Back to Being Must-See TV (Exclusive)

It was a different scene for Real Housewives of New York City alums Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan when they arrived in Benton, Illinois, to film their spinoff series, Luann & Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake. After years of private jets and luxury yachts, the duo found themselves in an unairconditioned sedan, driving sans chauffeur to the Benton Motel, a one-story lodge without any of the charm of the Hamptons hideaways to which they’re accustomed. Would these two city slickers crash and burn once they left the Upper East Side?

The answer, shockingly, was no. De Lesseps and Morgan started to fit right in within days, engaging in all kinds of activities you absolutely can’t do in Manhattan: mudding (off-roading in a mini monster truck), bull-testicle eating (what it sounds like) and noodling (catfish hunting with your bare or possibly gloved hands).

The surprisingly heartwarming Crappie Lake became an instant hit with fans and even critics, who don’t normally pay much attention to Bravo’s wares. New York magazine called it “the best show on Bravo” in July. TIME, meanwhile, hailed it as a “captivating comedic masterpiece” and a “refreshingly conflict-free return to form.”

It’s that last notion that seems to have proliferated across the Housewives universe of late, a welcome respite following a few years where the shows had turned relentlessly grim. After the coronavirus pandemic made filming extraordinarily complicated, some of the franchise’s brightest stars were hit with serious legal allegations. Erika Jayne of Beverly Hills was accused of embezzling money from families of plane crash victims (she’s in the clear for now), while Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah was arrested for wire fraud (she’s in jail for the next six years).

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Luann de Lesseps, Sonja Morgan. Nick Fochtman/E! Entertainment

Housewives has always trafficked in these women’s woes — see any number of messy divorces and Teresa Giudice’s 2012 prison stint — but to many fans, these developments felt different. Ripping off the IRS is one thing, but allegedly scamming retirees and plane crash victims is quite another.

“Some of our shows have gotten very dark in the past few seasons, and it’s not that surprising,” says Sevin Cavusoglu, senior vice president of unscripted content at NBCUniversal. “These dynamics have been going on for 15, 16, 17 seasons. It’s good to counter that with some Crappie Lake silliness.”

Across the Housewives board, much of the action has gotten a lot more low-stakes. During RHONY’s first season with an all-new cast, the biggest blowups involved a prank war gone wrong and the question of whether it’s weird to serve a cheese plate at a house party. Over on Salt Lake City, which in season 2 featured an actual FBI raid, the gals are having it out over whether Meredith Marks should have invited Angie Katsanevas to her Palm Springs getaway — and whether Angie should have crashed the trip when she didn’t.

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Cavusoglu points to the RHONY’s women’s fight over a bleeped-out restaurant (later confirmed to be fading Manhattan hotspot Catch) as the perfect example of what embodies this current era of Housewives. “In a way, it’s a throwback to OG RHONY, because I feel like those are the conversations that Luann used to have — etiquette and where you won’t be seen, where you need to be seen and where you want to go,” Cavusoglu explains. “There’s just something so fresh, yet familiar about it.”

The RHONY revival represents one of the biggest swings Bravo has taken in years. After a lackluster season 13 that was so poorly received it didn’t even get a reunion — a depressing Housewives first — the network decided to wipe the slate clean and reboot the franchise in another first. Some viewers were angry to see favorites Morgan and de Lesseps swept out like so much trash after a roaring ’20s party. Others theorized that executives overhauled the cast rather than fire controversial OG cast member Ramona Singer, whose fights with RHONY’s first Black Housewife, Eboni K. Williams, crossed the line from thought-provoking to offensive. (A source told Us in October 2021 that Bravo launched an investigation after a crew member and Williams accused Singer of making racially insensitive comments. “For the first one filed by the crew member, the findings were corroborated,” the insider said at the time. “[For] the second one filed by Eboni, the findings were not corroborated.”)

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Brynn Whitfield, Erin Lichy, Sai De Silva, Jenna Lyons, Jessel Taank, Ubah Hassan. Gavin Bond/Bravo

Bravo eventually confirmed that Morgan, de Lesseps, Singer and three other “legacy” Housewives would participate in an all-RHONY season of Peacock original Ultimate Girls Trip, but fans remained skeptical of the new cast, which Andy Cohen announced at BravoCon in October 2022. It didn’t help that one of the new stars, Lizzy Savetsky, quit during filming. “The beginning was scary,” Cavusoglu admits. “Even within Bravo, there were a lot of skeptics because people are so loyal to the OGs.”

Within a few weeks of the show’s July premiere, though, the tide of public opinion had turned. Bravo stan accounts were fully on board, while legacy media outlets couldn’t stop gushing over bona fide fashion legend Jenna Lyons (the former fashion director of J.Crew who revitalized the brand in the early 2010s) emerging as the mysterious and refined elder stateswoman of the cast. Still other fans were pleased to see Brynn Whitfield and Sai De Silva speak honestly about their difficult childhoods in unusually moving moments.

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“I’m beyond thrilled,” Ryan Flynn, senior vice president of current production at NBCUniversal, says of the show’s reception. “The RHONY audience has been one of the most passionate and most vocal and probably most strident in their love. Love to watch, hate to watch, love to hate-watch — all of it, but very vocal. It was not surprising when we were met with skepticism.”

By fall, the skepticism had melted away and been replaced with fierce debates about favorite Housewives and the ethics of gifting friends your sponsored products. “Very honestly, I feel very elated and vindicated in a way that we got to show everyone, ‘Give us a chance,’” says Cavusoglu. “We love and respect this show just as much as you all do. We’re not going to steer you wrong, and we want to do right by RHONY’s legacy.”

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Emily Simpson, Gina Kirschenheiter, Heather Dubrow, Tamra Judge, Shannon Storms Beador, Jennifer Pedranti. Andrew Eccles/Bravo

A similar trajectory took place on Orange County, the 17-year-old workhorse of the Housewives firmament and the one that started at all. Fans were again skeptical when Tamra Judge announced her return to the series in summer 2022, as a returning cast member usually spells doom for fresh ideas. In this case, though, Judge’s splashy homecoming added a much-needed jolt of low-stakes drama. With the addition of newbie Jennifer Pedranti and former Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, season 17 proved there was still plenty of juice in the orange.

“It was a bit stale. We were kind of stumbling around for a bit,” says RHOC star Gina Kirschenheiter, who joined the show in season 13. “This year, everything clicked into place, because there was just good synergy with this cast. Whether we were really happy and having fun or really angry and having issues, it was real.”

Flynn, who first started working on RHOC in season 6, agrees. For season 17, producers decided to change “everything” — the graphics, the opening, the theme song, the showrunner. “After the last season where it felt like, ‘God, we’re just not moving the needle enough,’ we knew we needed to take — in Dorinda [Medley’s] words — a pause and not get right back on the same sort of schedule,” Flynn says.

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Nicole Martin, Guerdy Abraira, Lisa Hochstein, Julia Lemigova, Alexia Nepola, Larsa Pippen. Gizelle Hernandez/Stephanie Diani/Bravo

For Flynn, a full-on break in filming is the first step when a franchise needs a shakeup. In the case of The Real Housewives of Miami, that break lasted a full 10 years, but the decision to revive the show seems to be paying off. After two seasons that streamed exclusively on Peacock, Bravo will be airing season 6 on linear TV starting November 1. Among fans, there’s talk of Miami being the strongest entry across all the Housewives cities right now. This is thanks in part to plenty of kooky drama — arguing over Brazilian butt lifts at a dog’s birthday party — but also the real, relatable experiences these women are having. Viewers saw the shocking breakdown of Lisa Hochstein’s marriage in season 5, while season 6 will track Guerdy Abraira’s fight against breast cancer. Critics love to brush off the Housewives as frivolous trash, but there are a scant few shows on TV that prioritize the real struggles of women in their 30s, 40s and above.

“You see people going through growing pains with their marriages. You see friendships really tested,” says Kathleen French, senior vice president of current production at NBCUniversal. “The women are beautiful and they have these wonderful high-end lifestyles, but they have real-life problems.”

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French, a self-described member of the “Miami Fan Club,” was one of the execs instrumental in bringing RHOM back in 2021. The show is notable for being one of the most diverse entries in the Housewives franchise, featuring cast members from Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Russia and Canada. “It’s a beautiful show. Miami is such a great international city at this point, and I think this cast reflects Miami,” French tells Us. “It’s a microcosm, I think, of what is actually going on in Miami right now.”

This may sound like PR spin, but diversity is obviously something French and her colleagues are thinking about when casting these shows. For the revamped RHONY, Cavusoglu was passionate about making sure that the show was a better reflection of the real people who make up New York City. “We wanted to diversify in terms of neighborhoods, in terms of professions,” she says. “I’m an immigrant woman myself, and one of the things I love about New York is you hear so many different accents and different languages when you walk down the street. It was like, ‘Where do we find that New York?’”

There’s no pleasing everyone, of course, but for the moment, plenty of fans are happy with what they’re seeing on RHONY, as well as RHOSLC, RHOC, RHOM and the rest. Real life may not be all diamonds and rosé, but on Bravo, the dream is still alive — so long as you pay your taxes.

For more with the Reality Stars of the Year, pick up the new issue of Us Weekly, on stands now.

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