Real Housewives of Melbourne: Froth without bubbles

The Real Housewives of Melbourne on Arena.The oft-made claim about The Real Housewives of Melbourne, the first Australian edition of the burgeoning American reality television franchise, is that it isn’t scripted. Firstly, that’s disingenuous. Not having written lines doesn’t preclude the manufacturing of scenarios, collusion in tone and multiple takes. Based on the first two episodes, screening on Foxtel’s Arena on Sunday evenings, there are kit homes that are less pre-fabricated than this.

Secondly, maybe it should be scripted. Then you wouldn’t have amateur actors – which is what the six privileged central cast members and their support teams essentially are – improvising all the time. Left to their own devices, with several cameras shooting, they’re hardly arresting. Embarrassing? Yes. Self-delusional? Yes. Compulsively watchable? No.

Since The Real Housewives of Orange County debuted in March, 2006, the show has spread with viral-like speed. What it offers, without too much obfuscation, are the narcissistic antics of the rich and desperate to be famous. A group of wealthy women, or at least the spoilt wives of wealthy men, endlessly circle each other in social settings where they argue over slights, take sides, regroup and argue some more, before repeating the cycle.

If a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then this reality show is certifiable. But the Americans, frankly, deliver on that repetition. Whether it’s the Hollywood loopiness of Beverly Hills or the Sopranos vibe of New Jersey, each edition is full of crazy outbursts and hysterical interaction. On the Atlanta show recently, an adult pyjama party for the housewives and their partners ended in a running brawl.

Atlanta, I might add, is the most successful American edition. The franchise’s audience want ostentatious lifestyle and terrible behaviour; they want to gawk and groan.

But at this stage The Real Housewives of Melbourne is playing it safe. The city’s society is supposedly discrete, the participants career-orientated.

The show is an unwieldy mix of the respectable and the supposedly risque. There are brand names, stereotypical society hairdressers (twice-divorced property developer Janet Roach doesn’t even wash her own hair), along with enough plugs for various French champagnes to make even Francois Hollande smile.

Unfortunately, the first serious showdown in this coming Sunday’s episode, between gaudy barrister Gina Liano and professional psychic Jackie Gillies, is a complete bust.

It’s lacking in that crucial reality television element of batshit craziness. In a throwdown over whether Gina’s boyfriend, who is living in America, is faithful to her, a bunch of talking points keep getting repeated before Gina tells Jackie that her practices are demonic.

“Don’t say I’m talking through demonic!” demands Jackie, a line that encapsulates the program’s knack for bizarre invention, but then it’s all over with a walkout.

The set-pieces have to be over the top, as without them the format becomes drearily repetitive: the women and their entourages just keep getting thrown together over lunch or parties that are held for the camera’s needs.

Without the trademark punctuation you’re left with unpleasant assumptions; such as the way Lydia Schiavello is shown to be happily insatiable in her spending habits and determined to bluntly reference her sex life with her husband, leaving you to wonder if the two facets are connected.

Like previous local versions of American successes, such as Survivor, The Real Housewives of Melbourne is losing something in the translation. The show is being sold as if its veneer – that these are charming, enlightened credits to our society – is real.

There’s the occasional hint of satire, such as Andrea’s children mocking her lists for their many nannies, but mostly it’s too sedate.

No-one wants to care for these characters – the goal is to be outraged to the point of entertainment by their fabulous flare-ups.

Maybe the show will pick up – amazingly, Gina is going to Jackie’s housewarming party in the third episode (presumably without an exorcist in tow) – but right now it needs some gold-plated outrageousness. There’s no point making discretely half-hearted trash.

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