Alexandra Lange | Essays

People in New Houses...

After our unsatisfying evening with Castle Howard and British snobs (see Aloysius Is Missed), the next night Mark and I decided to wallow in the mindlessness of actual American television. We are really not as big snobs as that sounds, but it is the summer, and we are eagerly awaiting the August starts of Mad Men and Project Runway, so there never seems to be anything on. And what was on Thursday at 8 p.m. was The Real Housewives of New Jersey. And we were duly horrified and fascinated by the season’s final episode, portentiously titled “The Last Supper” and set, as every one of the show’s meals seems to be, in an overdecorated Italian restaurant with a large parking lot.

Why the real housewives eat out so much seems somewhat of a mystery, since they all constantly protest that they put family first and they do, in fact, have kitchens larger than the first floor of my house. They probably have bathrooms larger than the first floor of my house, not to mention closets. Which brings me to my bemused realization of the next day: RHONJ and Brideshead Revisted are not so far apart, when you think of them as exercises in lifestyle porn. The housewives imagine we, the viewers, as versions of Charles Ryder, angling to get inside their French chateaux and Tudor mansions on the shores of Franklin Lakes, NJ. They are always talking about how someone else on the show, or even some hypothetical other woman, is jealous of what they have — whether it is a short, tattooed husband, G-cup breasts, or a son. Is that so different from a title, money enough to buy impunity, or a son, as it would have been for British society?

But what they are most proud of is their homes. I missed the episode in which Teresa said that houses lived in by other people were gross. Her short, tattooed husband dutifully bought her a brand new house, one lined? encrusted? shellacked? with the onyx of many nations, liberally applied to floors, counters and walls for the maximum clash of black, red and gold. There’s a scene where Theresa is showing Dina around and I thought we had already seen the living room, but what I thought was the living room was only a foyer. The real living room, of course, is a double-height space with a marble fireplace, perfect for an after-dinner dance. Dina starts giving Teresa some good advice about how to warm up a large house and create multiple seating areas in a large room. Sister Parish would have been proud. And perhaps half of their viewership is green with envy, as the housewives seem to have more house and more cars than anyone I know. But the other half must have the same conflicted feelings I do, briefly delighting in the terrifying nature of their taste, wishing that so much money had been spent to make more of a home. Only sweet Jacqueline, is seen slicing a cucumber in her kitchen. And trying to talk her daughter out of a sense of entitlement.

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