Real housewives and blood diamonds

Another trip to Orange County, and bling’d in Sierra Leone
By JAMES PARKER  |  February 27, 2007

SAUNDERS COUNTRY?: The Real Housewives of Orange County are all multiply ex-spoused and maddened by avarice, their faces puffily aglow with knifings and Botox.
Literature, that slow cousin to Life, has in its prolonged non-engagement with reality TV been even denser and more dreamily backward than usual. Seriously: where is the Robert Stone–style novel about the 12 contestants on the desert island — ad men, personal trainers, and so on — who go native, invent a religion, and start eating the camera crew? Or the short-story collection set inside a fictional boiling-down of all those engineered-for-chaos reality households, the Real Worlds and the Surreal Lifes? Have I missed these books? Were they any good? Because the only author I’ve read who’s capable of summoning the mutant futurism of the reality sphere is George Saunders, in whose collection Pastoralia we find, for example, the two troubled actors playing cavemen in a history theme park faxing assessments of each other’s performance to their administrators, and the show called The Worst That Could Happen (“a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could”).

I thought of Saunders last year, during season five of The Apprentice, when one of the teams was attempting to devise an afternoon of executive entertainments for a party of car salesmen. Thinking that a spot of skeet shooting might be nice idea, they hired the guns and the launcher and took a few excited practice pops in the woods outside the hospitality tent, only to be interrupted by a diffident individual from the Parks Department who told them that the area wasn’t zoned for skeet shooting. Something in the bizarro logicality of this little episode, its step-by-step escalation into complete bureaucratic weirdness, was very Saunders.

I thought of him again last week while I was watching season two of The Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo, Tuesdays, 10pm). The Real Housewives lead lives of pioneering complexity. They are all multiply ex-spoused (rugged, well-moisturized dudes with names like Duffy and Slade are hanging around), all maddened by avarice, and their faces are all puffily aglow with knifings and Botox. The George Saunders moment comes in Episode #5: Shane Keough, 19-year-old son of realtor/terminator Jeana (one of the five women followed by the show), has invited a young lady to come and stay. She is Miss Canada, and they met on his MySpace page. “My GAY Space!” scoffs his sister Kara, but Miss Canada arrives at the Keough mansion and she is indeed a woman, albeit slightly depleted by the recent removal of her adenoids and tonsils. A brief interview with Kara reveals additionally that she is in fact not Miss Canada but Miss South Ontario.

Shane — big shoulders, shaved head, school-bully good looks — is at home recuperating from a back injury that has temporarily derailed his major-league-baseball career. When his mother’s friend Tammy drops by, a fellow Real Housewife, he sits on the patio yelling “How ya doin’, TITS?!” and frightens her back into the house. Born a generation earlier, this kid might have been a vibrant monster of OC hardcore, a breaker of heads in those Huntington Beach pits, getting his bloodstained groove on to TSOL and China White. As it is, he plays video games with his goon buddies, blank of face and busy of thumb, while sad Miss South Ontario looks on. “You hungry?” he asks her, eyes on the screen. “You want one of those Ensure things?”

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