According to my well-placed moles, the sightings started last summer. A camera crew at the strip mall. Congregations of gawkers outside the coffee shop. Muted scuffles at the country club, refereed by Teamsters brandishing headsets and walkie-talkies. The stalwart townsfolk took little notice, accustomed as they are to the attention-foraging antics of pumpkin-hued tarts in translucent tennis skirts, but eventually word got out: Our 15 minutes were upon us.
And so it was that my hometown, the warm, welcoming burg where I learned to shoot jumpers and conjugate verbs and tamper with liquor cabinets, came to be featured in the first season of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."
As anyone who watched Tuesday night's opening salvo might expect, the locals have expressed disgust at its depiction -- and that was before the first full episode, with its blithe portrayals of unchecked consumerism and Gotti family values, aired. There have been threats to revoke nonexistent filming permits. Residents who leave the "employer" line blank on their 1040 form have been walking around with "Ask me about my charity endeavors, which are exceedingly charitable!" buttons on their lapels. A person whose last name is spelled and pronounced exactly like my own even went so far as to send an impassioned, humorless treatise to the local newspaper, for which she's apparently "getting thanked at Market Basket" (this person does, however, bemoan the paper's decision to excise her tangent about the effect that reality-show exposure has on school-age children).
I had a different reaction. I was bored.
Don't get me wrong -- it's a trip to see the freeways and brambles of my youth immortalized on "Real Housewives," and enormously amusing to see the dipshit nouveau-riche minority raze the town's reputation with one aggrieved flip of their creatively landscaped hair. At the same time, though, I can't help but ask: Where's the fun?
The "Real Housewives" franchise, which takes its cues from pro wrestling (good guys, bad guys, scripted conflict, etc.), has always been all about the fun, whether in the New York City gals' high-society misadventures or the Atlanta gals' calamitous attempts at tea-time gentility. The Jer-Z incarnation, though, goes light on the frivolity. It wants us to be appalled, not entertained.
As opposed to prior "Housewives" seasons, the Jer-Z one trots out its protagonists like animals at a petting zoo, encouraging viewers to point and prod. It prompts us to shake our heads disapprovingly at the shove-y stage mom who claims not to be a stage mom. It practically instructs us to wag our fingers disapprovingly at the sad attempts to lure a sugar daddy and at the teens for whom bed-making proves an elusive task. We run out of body parts to shake disapprovingly; there's nothing here with which to empathize.
"Real Housewives of Jer-Z" also lacks an Omarosa, or at least somebody as delectably nasty and reprehensible as the malfeasants we're seeing on the evening news ("The Real Jihadists of Pakistan," perhaps?). The characterizations of the five protagonists are broad and nuance-free: Two of the five are brassy and likeable, a third is self-unaware but benign, and the other two are either certifiable or auditioning for a spinoff of their own. But without a bona fide villain or alpha-dog clique headmistress, "Real Housewives" sags.
One can only say "Oh! they're so vulgar and artificial!" so many times. Fifteen minutes into the first episode, I was desperate for one of the participants to flash some wit or some heart -- and yes, I realize that looking for heart and wit on a televised reality endeavor is like looking for a Republican on a commune. Even the trusty sound bites, usually featuring the word "bitch" or some derivation thereof, don't fill the entertainment void. It's all overdramatized and under-felt, and it gets tiresome quickly.
So for those keeping score at home, the reputation of my fair, quaint, humble, neatly sodded, poorly drained, affluent-but-nowhere-near-as-affluent-as-the-panoramic-shots-from-above-would-lead-you-to-believe hometown has now been besmirched by "The Real Housewives" franchise and MTV's "My Super Sweet 16." I trust that civic authorities will avoid a reputation-ruining trifecta by refusing to allow The Osbournes to set up shop within its borders.
I'm sorry to suck the fun out of this. There's a compulsively watchable, gasp-worthy reality show waiting to be filmed somewhere in the consumerist wilds of Northern Jer-Z, but this ain't it. The region, and its manicurists, deserve better.