Much like the cast of the originator, The Real Housewives Of Orange County, the fifth season of the show’s New York counterpart bears barely a resemblance to its initial line-up. That’s just fine, given the quality of the new batch of alpha females stepping into the spotlight this round. It also has a card up its sleeve, given the fact that RHNYC has fared consistently well over the four seasons it’s been a part of the never-ending Real Housewives hamster wheel of heels and hair. Still, the decision to boot mainstays Jill Zarin (too needy), Alex McCord (too creepy), and Kelly Bensimon (too bananas) has given it a fresh revamp while holding onto cast members who will stir up the best kind of drama.
Picking up where last season left off, we’re reintroduced to the still-simmering tension between two of the cast's biggest stars, quasi-posh LuAnn de Lesseps and Ramona “Turtle Time” Singer. It seems that Ramona called LuAnn’s parenting into question last season by branding her a “weekend mom," and that has not been well-received by the former Countess. That storyline is bandied about during the episode—including a meek confrontation at one of Sonja’s parties—and culminates with some serious allegations by LuAnn, accusing Ramona of threatening to release damning information about LuAnn's teenage children if she didn’t stop seeking an apology. The whole thing is wildly vague and held together in a very Bravo way, in that it feels perfectly constructed to define allegiances among the circle right off the bat.
Meeting the new additions and watching them navigate the choppy waters of crazy they must endure to be part of the show is the real treat of the episode. We already know Ramona is a pinot-fueled, wild-eyed wonder, and LuAnn wants to gossip her very pretty face off while passive aggressively correcting manners left and right. Sonja shines as reality TV gold, whether rambling about her "toaster oven diet" or forgetting to wear the bottom half of an elaborate Marie Antoinette costume to a costume party, as she did last season, thereby hanging her butt out for all to see.
So who are the newbies? There’s tall, blonde Aviva, who we learn was born and raised in NYC and is a stay-at-home mom to four kids. Just minutes into her pedicure with Sonja, we find out that Aviva has an unexpected bit of news to share: She’s missing her left leg, below the knee. She’s entirely casual about the whole thing and manages to come across as a shockingly well-adjusted addition to the group… that is until she corners another new housewife, Carol, at Sonja’s cocktail party to rattle on insensitively about how much she loved her book (about watching her husband slowly die of cancer) to the point of cringing.
Carol comes across as the most interesting new addition, by far. Though her late husband had ties to the Kennedy family, her own life is filled with very some very notable (and un-Housewife-ian) accomplishments: She’s been an award-winning journalist at ABC News, PrimeTime Live, and 20/20, all before writing the aforementioned memoir and ending up on The New York Times best-seller list for 12 weeks. As far as how that all translates to the Bravo universe is still to be seen, given the fact she holds down the post of “normal human” in the first episode while all the other gals orbit around her. In fact, while the other women are getting to know each other (via tequila shots) in the Hamptons, Carol stays in the city to work on a magazine interview. (Full disclosure: It's with the Kardashians... It's still Bravo!)
Then there's newcomer Heather, who has made her mark in the NYC-scene via a shape wear collection that’s done quite well. Followers of the series would be wise to see the inclusion of another shape wear queen as a direct dig at newly booted Jill, whose Skweez Couture By Jill Zarin line surely must not love the Bravo-centric promotion for another housewife's brand of stretchy underoos. There's also the mind-blowing realization during these programs that many of the women are successfully building mini-empires out of shape wear, shitty wine, and whatever else they can brand their names onto while laughing their way to the bank. This was just a full paragraph about Housewives-branded shapewear. Just let that soak in for a moment.
Onward! As far as the first episode shenanigans go, there aren’t too many. Ramona reminds everyone how fantastically abrasive she is when she and her creepo husband Mario corner Heather at their Hamptons dinner party to tell her: “You do cut people off. Just so you know.” She handles the tag-team lesson on manners (from two of the most poorly mannered people in the show's history) with some tact, pointing out she felt the same way towards them and would do her best to avoid stepping on them conversationally in the future. But just when you think you might be leaning towards Heather for the “most level-headed” vote, she veers off course by announcing repeatedly that her father died just days earlier and that her son had a life-saving liver transplant when he was just a baby. It’s far too real-world shocking for the confines of the Bravo universe and is met by awkwardness and discomfort by the other women (and viewers). As much as we want the back-story on these women, it becomes somehow too bizarre to hear her tell truly heartbreaking stories to glassy eyed cardboard women wearing fur vests and thigh-high boots.
There are some more quality scenes, like when we see LuAnn’s daughter host an art showing for her paintings. The small room ends up not-so-mysteriously filled with the housewives and their friends, even though she’s a senior in high school. Also, the women (who we see in previews for later episodes cavorting topless in pools and drunkenly dancing on bars) are forced to reconcile their feelings about Victoria’s very "edgy" art, which consists of a few cartoon skulls and some nondescript outlines of nude women. It’s jarring stuff from the twisted mind of a 17-year-old socialite.
The whole first episode is really a flurry of coiffed hair and heels, establishing the allegiances that have carried over from last season (Sonja and Ramona vs. LuAnn, specifically) and showing the newcomers like deer in headlights as they learn the ropes of this frightening universe they’ve signed on to be a part of. And if the previews for upcoming episodes are any indication, it’s going to be just the doozy that fans of the series come to expect. It’s only a matter of weeks before we get to hear LuAnn lob this gem at Ramona during a heated confrontation: “What other tricks do you have to pull out of your pinot filled hat?!” And there you have, in a single utterance, exactly why maniacs like me come back for more.