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'Real Housewives of O.C.' a Guilty Pleasure

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. If everything you know about Orange County, California comes from television like The OC on Fox, or MTV's reality show Laguna Beach, you might think the place is nothing more than a den of rich, spoiled airheads. Well, how about doing a little more research, by say tuning into The Real Housewives of Orange County on Bravo tonight. Would you change your mind? TV critic Andrew Wallenstein found the show enlightening.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

Go back in TV history to shows like Dynasty or Dallas, and it's self-evident. Americans love to watch wealth. The Real Housewives of Orange County may be a reality show, but it follows directly in that tradition, which makes me ashamed to say, I am hopelessly addicted to it.

It wasn't something I expected. I mean, the excessive materialism of 40-something women on Desperate Housewives does nothing for me, so why would I fall so hard for a reality version set in a higher tax bracket? But there's something about watching real people drowning in their own riches that makes for irresistible television.

Take the show's youngest and most fascinating character, Jo De La Rosa, for instance. You'd think this 24-year-old wife-to-be has it made. She's landed herself a 30-something millionaire ex-model who does not want her to work, but as it turns out, being a kept woman isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Ms. JO DE LA ROSA (The Real Housewives of Orange County): I have become a lady of leisure. In the beginning of the relationship, I wanted to work, but Slade didn't want me to. He just wanted me to stay at home and basically experience this life.

Everyone things they want to live the life. Everyone thinks they want the cars and the houses and the bling and the whole shebang, and it might be a little different story once you actually get it. It gets kind of lonely around here.

WALLENSTEIN: The rest of the women on Real Housewives of Orange County aren't like Jo. For one thing, they're about 20 years older, and so pumped with silicon, collagen, and blonde hair dye, I could barely tell them apart. And unlike Miss De La Rosa, many are actually successful businesswomen in their own right, who don't rely on their husband's fortunes.

However, we learn even the self-sufficient good life has its challenges. Vicki Gunvalson is a top insurance broker having a hard time with her youngest daughter graduating high school. Here she is at the hair salon helping her get ready for prom.

Ms. VICKI GUNVALSON (The Real Housewives of Orange County): After tonight, it's all over. I remember my high school prom like it was yesterday. It is the most real life stuff right now, you know, and you can't relive this moment and I want you to enjoy every moment.

Unidentified Female: It's a big deal. I'm just not making it a very sad think like you're making it.

Ms. GUNVALSON: Well, it's sad for me. I'm not going to have any more of these fun things to go with with you.

Unidentified Female: It's not your functions. They're my functions, anyway.

Ms. Gunvalson: Well, I'm experiencing it with you. It's not just you.

Unidentified Female: You're driving me nuts.

WALLENSTEIN: The women of Real Housewives are a lot like their mansions, impeccably maintained facades. But what the show does so well is point out the cracks. The viewer, in turn, is left to pinball between mixed feelings of revulsion, fascination, and yes, envy about what they're seeing. In its own tawdry way, Real Housewives raises existential questions about what the good life really entails.

But maybe I'm just rationalizing. Maybe it's as simple as I'm a sucker for fancy cars and multi-million dollar houses. That's what makes me feel guilty about watching The Real Housewives. Yeah, I love the show, but now I hate myself.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for The Hollywood Reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.