Last year I found myself hooked into "Bethenny Ever After" (Mon. 10 p.m. on Bravo) despite myself. Yes, former "Real Housewives of New York" star Bethenny Frankel can be crass, loud and annoying, but mostly she had a self-deprecating sense of humor that made scripted scenes almost tolerable and displays of conspicuous consumption a little less irritating. In some ways, she was the neurotic Manhattan version of Mary Tyler Moore 2.0 -- married with a kid in the big city, she was going to make it after all.
But I was prepared to sit out this season. Last year Frankel sold her Skinnygirl cocktail brand for a reported $120 million, ended up on the cover of Forbes, and jumped from simply well-to-do to filthy rich. While kudos to her, part of Frankel's appeal had been her status as a scrapper -- an ambitious woman who, unlike most other "real" housewives, had to fight for whatever shred of the D-list pie fell into her lap.
That struggle was one that could easily struck a chord with most viewers, even if an average fan was, unlike Frankel, simply trying to pay the bills instead of land a "Today" show appearance. Where most reality TV shows about the wealthy fall apart is when they move focus from relationships and universal themes to spending. For some crazy reason, the enormous stress of picking out the right diamond-encrusted pendant or a fabulous brocade to match your 17th century bedroom set isn't exactly a concern for most people, and the phrase "world's tiniest violin" comes most easily to mind.
As expected, there's plenty of "gee, my fabulous wealth is SO stressful!" in this season's episodes. Bethenny buys a new, huge apartment and has to deal with architects and designers and permits, oh my! There's plenty of chatter about how much life has changed, the complications money brings, the way it changes relationships with your minions. If this was all "Bethenny Ever After" had become, it would be a no brainer to shut off the television and grab a drink -- Skinnygirl or otherwise -- to deal with the decidedly less fabulous task of doing your own laundry.
But it turns out that money may change everything except the neuroses and problems of the series' star, and that is where the show, surprisingly, finds some traction. Becoming a mom has forced Frankel to grapple with her own childhood issues, and though I have my qualms about on-camera therapy sessions (although they've somehow become an almost expected part of situational reality TV), Frankel's sessions can be wrenching. While one episode that starts with a yawn-worthy rich girl's weekend in Montauk, it ends with her tearing up in her therapist's office, later admitting how badly she wants her daughter Bryn to stay "nice and soft and sweet" to avoid Frankel's fate -- her status as a hardened survivor.
Still, it's when Frankel faces more current concerns that the show digs down into issues within her still-new marriage. While last season her husband Jason Hoppy emerged as the sane, calm answer to Frankel's brand of crazy, this season isn't so clear cut. As Frankel sees it, Hoppy is threatened by her newfound wealth, is resistant to therapy and relishes his status as a normal guy on Frankel's TV show -- while showing a very different side of his personality when the cameras aren't rolling.
While we don't get to see this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine, it's definitely the source material for more than a few fights that seem less staged than uncomfortably real. Frankel and Hoppy talk about devotion to their marriage and most episodes end with a fresh coat of happy slapped over whatever has come before, but with such big issues coming between them -- money, power and Frankel's own desperate need for acceptance -- there's no guarantee this marriage will go the distance no matter how sweet the scripted codas. God forbid a reality TV show actually get real, but when this one seems to, it's riveting stuff. And, despite the couple's huge influx of cash, their issues don't seem that different than those plenty of middle class couples face. Now, if they could just lose the traumas of the super rich, "Bethenny Ever After" might be worth watching.
Are you watching "Bethenny Ever After"?