News Column

No Apologies

June 2, 2013



Hate means never having to say you're sorry.

At least that's true of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," which begins its fifth season tonight -- without apology and, against all odds, with the entire feuding cast intact.

Over the past four seasons, the Bravo show has featured table- flipping, hair-pulling, cursing, sibling feuding, name-calling and brawling -- most recently, at a Ridgewood hair salon, during a private event on March 30. That last incident -- which led to criminal charges against housewife Jacqueline Laurita, two other cast members and the man they fought with -- will presumably become the big blowout episode of Season 5.

Despite all the mayhem, the "RHONJ" stars have never displayed the kind of public contrition -- onscreen or off -- that traditional actors who misbehave must adopt. Hugh Grant, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Alec Baldwin -- all seemingly followed carefully crafted crisis-management scripts after their respective misdeeds became public. And after Reese Witherspoon's recent arrest in Atlanta for disorderly conduct, the actress went on a veritable media mea culpa tour.

Not so the women of "RHONJ." Thanks to a confluence of factors -- from the nature of reality TV itself to viewers' differing perceptions of its players -- the show rolls on and remains a hit. And the bad behavior never seems to damage the stars' standing with viewers, who come out in droves to their book signings and product launches. This is jarringly apparent with frequent offender Teresa Giudice, who can be toxic on camera but unfailingly polite in person.

"They're all beloved in different ways, but Teresa is absolutely beloved," says Shari Levine, Bravo's senior vice president of current production. "She is fun. She is high-energy. ... You see her, to use the expression, warts and all. ... There's no veneer, and people embrace that honesty. They really do."

Then, too, viewers may have different expectations of reality versus traditional stars.

"It's not like Reese Witherspoon, where she's a role model," says Marissa Rizkalla, a big "RHONJ" fan, who owns The Couture Baby in Ridgewood, located just a few doors down from the site of the March brawl. "People that are watching 'Housewives' aren't looking up to these people or their children. It's more like entertainment TV. If they didn't have the drama going on, people wouldn't watch. Look at the D.C. 'Housewives.' It was boring and it went off the air."

Still, is there no such thing as bad publicity? Apart from, say, committing murder, it's difficult to think of a transgression that would turn an "RHONJ" fan into a foe.

"With a show like 'Real Housewives,' obviously a network like Bravo has its public relations machine, and you almost get the sense that bad behavior is rewarded," says PR expert Christopher Caldiero, an assistant professor of communication studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "If you see advertisements for any of these reality shows, including 'Real Housewives,' what clips are they gonna show you? They're going to show you that fight in Ridgewood. ... And that's what piques interest to tune in. However sad that is to realize, that's just the way it is."

Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School in Manhattan, puts it more bluntly.

"There's no such thing as bad publicity on reality TV," he says. "If you look at who's on the tips of people's tongues as reality-TV personalities, it's not the do-gooders, not the well-behaved ones, not the ones who are playing nice. [It's] the bad apples."

Fractiousness, in fact, is part of the genetic code of most reality shows, Galinsky says.

"The DNA of reality television is the wipeout, the car crash, the train wreck ... to watch people at their worst," he says. "I think everybody gives 'The Housewives' a free pass, because the show has been introduced as 'You're gonna watch a bunch of spoiled brats here.' And once everybody knows that, accepts that, then reality TV audiences kind of expect those meltdowns and that disgusting brash behavior. ... It's part and parcel of the show."

Viewers have also come to regard these shows as not really reality, says media historian Hugh Curnutt, a professor at Montclair State University's School of Communication and Media.

"My students will say, 'I love this show, but I know it's not real,' " says Curnutt, who believes viewers realize that by watching they are "becoming involved with a type of persona, or character type, that [they] know is somewhat constructed. And so, then, let's say when you show up to see them signing their cookbooks or whatever, [it's] more about witnessing their fame, being around the celebrity and also seeing what they're like in person, which is not unique to reality TV [but] a common part of the celebrity phenomenon."

Many viewers also realize that "reality" can be distorted in post- production editing.

"The reality television contract is really the true definition of selling your soul. You have no rights to how you're portrayed once you are put on tape by the producers," Galinsky says. "To me, the reality TV producers are the new great storytellers, because they take all of this improvised footage, with a rough outline, and they shape these amazing stories. And these amazing stories do not reflect the reality of the person or the situation they've shot."

What's clear is that "RHONJ" stars are about to embark on a new story line: "This season they are on a mission for redemption, scrambling to pick up the pieces of their fractured relationships," as Bravo publicity put it.

Tonight's episode, which feels heavily orchestrated at times, shows them surveying the damage at the Jersey Shore -- where the Gorgas and Giudices have summer homes and the Wakiles rent -- and repairing relationships. By the end of Season 4, Teresa was at odds with all the other women.

She and Joe Giudice -- who seemed headed for divorce court last season -- are seen having a cozy dinner. Joe tells her, "I don't know if it's this wine, but you've been looking better and better there, baby." (That's downright charming for Joe, who seems remarkably calm for a guy set to go on trial July 15 on charges he posed as his brother to get a driver's license.)

Mortal enemies Melissa Gorga and sister-in-law Teresa are gingerly arranging get-togethers for the sake of their kids. And Caroline Manzo, who pretty much pronounced Teresa dead to her, is now so concerned about Joe Gorga's yearlong estrangement from his sister, she agrees to intervene (which explains her reported meeting with Teresa at the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn).

Kathy Wakile doesn't do much in the episode (besides sharing dinner with her profanity-spewing sister, Rosie Pierri, and their mom). And Jacqueline appears determined to shed her reputation as the boring one. Although she is shown dealing with her 3-year-old son Nicholas' autism, Jacqueline is also using cruder language in addressing the camera.

And then there's that March 30 brawl at Ridgewood's Moxie Salon, where John Karagiorgis of Paramus claims that Jacqueline hit him in the head with her stiletto heel. Criminal charges lodged against her, as well as husband Christopher Laurita, Joe Gorga and Karagiorgis, have been referred to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said cases were being prepared to be presented to a grand jury for indictment.

A few days after the melee, Moxie Salon co-owner Jenn Dunn pointed out something that the show's producers will surely stress when the episode airs: "The fight wasn't between the 'Housewives' themselves, which is unusual."

Could these legal issues potentially damage New Jersey's seemingly Teflon reality show?

While acknowledging that the issues are serious, says Levine of Bravo, "It's a local story, and I think the local community reacts to it in a bigger way than the larger community. Look, there have been issues, and people continue to watch. ... These are real people who are living just their lives however they live them. And the show sort of goes on."



Teresa Giudice

"You old hag. ...You have three rolls: blubber, blubber and blubber." To Caroline, who'd insulted Teresa's dress during Season 4 reunion

Kathy Wakile

"Oh please, your mother's a [expletive] liar!" To Teresa, who'd said "even my mother knows" the Wakiles were once close to divorce, during Season 4 reunion

Caroline Manzo

"I think you're a liar. I think you're a fraud. I think you're a disgrace. ... I'm not interested in having a relationship with you." To Teresa, Season 4, Episode 17

Jacqueline Laurita

"You're the devil. You're sick and you're going to hell." To Teresa (for denying she'd asked Jacqueline to say Melissa was a stripper) during Season 4 reunion

Melissa Gorga

"I'm sick of talking to your weave. Can you turn around? ... This bitch is crazy." To, and then about, sister-in-law Teresa during Season 4 reunion

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(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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