In Sunday's season four premiere of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," local entertainment lawyer Phaedra Parks prepares for her Great Aunt Lillian's funeral. As Madonna taught us in Truth or Dare, deceased relatives are fair game in the fame-whoring documentary process, and a wearily skinny post-baby Phaedra takes over the funeral arrangements. "Everybody knows I'm known for the most fabulous things in life," Phaedra professes in a voice-over during a scene at the Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home. At first the Parks family wants an old-fashioned black carriage with black horses but is immediately wooed by Big Willie's high-class hearses. When it comes time for Lillian's funeral in a patch of uneven sod off an interstate exit with traffic rushing by, the procession appears: a black hearse with a flashing orange hazard light on top, strobe lights in the grill and outside speakers playing a ragtime ditty. After men in top hats and tuxedos let a single dove free, Phaedra has a realization: This season, she wants to be a funeral director.
That's right, a funeral director. Phaedra is a contradiction in a Sunday hat — a lawyer who married an ex-con. A woman who simultaneously calls herself an old-fashioned Southern lady while talking about the delicious qualities of putting powdered sugar in her vagina. Oscar-winning screenwriters couldn't make this stuff up if they tried. (Though I wish they would.) "The Real Housewives" brand of wig-pulling, cigarette-dangling, getting-dressed-in-a-gas-station, finger-pointing-in-your-face "reality" is a self-absorbed, self-destructing train wreck. And I love it.
I love how the Housewives have made gold-digging a competitive sport akin to the careers of their professional athlete ex-husbands. I love that their gay male hairdressers wearing 4-inch high-heels look more natural than they do. I love the way Phaedra's hunky ex-con husband Apollo holds his fork and knife like an impatient 4-year-old. I love that their hideous wigs cost more than my rent. Remember the wig pull heard 'round the world? Kim going lesbian for a remix DJ? Cynthia's friend contract? I love Kim's groundbreaking "Tardy for the Party" that set the standard for all Housewives to record a song, the doomed She by Shereé fashion line and the fact that Shereé's accented "e" is incorrectly placed.
Now in its fourth season, "RHOA" is Bravo's highest-rated program, raking in 4.4 million viewers for last season's finale. Castmates Kim Zolciak and Kandi Burruss even have spin-offs in the works. The show has had its share of hometown haters, but I know you all secretly tune in every week. Sure, these women don't even live in Atlanta, save for Grant Park resident Cynthia Bailey from season three. And really, they're not even rich: The McMansions of Nene Leakes, Shereé Whitfield and Lisa Wu Hartwell all went into foreclosure. (They are the 99%!) When Kim's secret sugar daddy (allegedly real estate mogul Lee Najjar) left her, the smoky-wigged Housewife was forced to have a yard sale of her gaudy furniture in the parking lot of a Duluth strip mall. Her kids peddled "designer clothes" on the side of the six-lane street while she drank white wine from a coffee to-go mug at 11 a.m.
But it's hilarious to watch, the ultimate in over-the-top fame-whoring. I can appreciate how these ladies hustle. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches stories have more unthinkable twists than the most outrageous made-up daytime soaps. Reality TV did get a little too real this year, though, when "Beverly Hills" househusband Russell Armstrong committed suicide on August 15. His family blames Bravo for ruining his life. Armstong's suicide proved a watershed moment for the series: What was once a voyeuristic peek inside upper-middle class gated communities had become a destructive force in real people's lives.
All it's-so-bad-it's-good things must come to an end, and the expiration date on this hot mess is fast approaching, even if it pains me to say it. There comes a point in every Real Housewife's life when the gauche cocktail parties and the misguided singing careers turn from amusing to downright pitiful, and the Atlanta Housewives have played out all their tricks.
Bravo is banking on the Atlanta franchise to keep the moribund series alive with a "Before They Were Stars" TV special, a "Back to Atlanta" jingle for the promos, and even playing nice with a mean ol' blogger like me. But this pimped-out procession of grotesque parodies can't roll on forever, and that's exactly what "Housewives" has become: Great Aunt Lillian's hearse, all pomp and circumstance flashing lights parading in front of mutilated flesh and dead dreams. The "reality" is it's probably time to retire these tawdry show ponies. But damn I'll miss those crazy bitches when they do.
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.