My home state of Illinois issued a “shelter in place” order to fight the spread of COVID-19 last Friday, and with the new reality of spending a lot more time at home comes the barrage of texts, tweets, and statuses asking for binge-watching recommendations. Many of us turn to TV for comfort in troubled times, but we all approach it differently. Some people find losing oneself in sexy, violent high fantasy an immersive escape; others may prefer the lower-stakes fare of baking competitions populated by charming British grannies.
I am the type of comfort TV watcher who will find calm in the act of sinking into the same episodes over and over again until I can perform them as animated one-woman shows for my thoroughly disinterested dog. I have probably spent a full 24 hours of my life re-watching the episode of The Office where Michael grills his foot. I revisit old seasons of The Great British Bake-Off knowing full well whose cake will be cut to reveal a soggy bottom.
But in this weird, awful, overwhelming moment, I’ve found solace in a particular set of repeat viewings. In times of crisis — personal, political, or pandemic — I gravitate towards rewatching The Real Housewives of New York City. But not just any episodes of RHONY. I go for the episodes fans know as “The Berzerkshires.”
For the past five seasons of RHONY, “The Berzerkshires” have served as the show’s de facto holiday special. For the uninitiated, these episodes involve all the titular housewives (with some exceptions, like Sonja being tragically uninvited in Season 8) traveling to cast member Dorinda Medley’s stately Tudor home in the Berkshires, known as Bluestone Manor, for a cozy weekend away. The cast gathers over elaborate spreads with plenty of wine, exchange gag gifts like Donald Trump Chia Pets, and rehash several season’s worth of drama in a matter of minutes. Like a tray of slightly underbaked brownies, these episodes are always over-the-top indulgent, slightly guilt-inducing, and delicious.
Yes, I know I should hate this show, especially in its most concentrated, tequila-spiked powderkeg incarnation. It embodies so many things that feel inconsequential or in poor taste at a moment when all our gravest inequities and injustices are on prominent display: garish displays of unchecked privilege and generational wealth, conflict for conflict’s sake, the treatment of real people’s struggles with real problems like loss and addiction as sensational story arcs, zebra-skin area rugs. So why, when I’m stressed over the state of things, do I find such constant comfort and escape in Sonja Morgan wailing about the Morgan letters or Bethenny Frankel throwing her legs in the air, imploring Ramona Singer to, “Mention it all”?
The goofy, over-the-top fantasy is fun, of course. Bluestone Manor is a visual feast, from Dorinda’s overzealous holiday decorations to the wildly varied aesthetics of the rooms themselves, including the infamous “fish room,” where giant mounted fish adorn teal walls. And then there’s the outfits the cast wears for these episodes — a carnival, at various times, of saloon gloves and glitter and animal print vests and lots of chunky turquoise statement jewelry.
But the Berzerkshires are comforting to me because watching more outrageous conflict helps me better deal with the real thing.
Confrontation is my kryptonite. I still lose sleep over arguments I had with friends over AOL Instant Messenger in high school. I spiral if I even have the slightest suspicion that someone is mad at me. As a result of my anxiety around causing or contributing to conflict, I often shut down when I should advocate for myself, because I just want the bad feelings to be over. I stay quiet rather than risk saying the wrong thing. When I watch Dorinda Medley raise her voice in righteous indignation because she cooked, she decorated, she made it nice, it feels liberating. I mean, she should be upset! She invited all these people into her home, filled it with creepy-festive Santa figurines and enough food to last through two weeks of quarantine, and her guests are at each other’s throats! She had to pick up after Ramona’s dog! She should be upset. “You tell ‘em, Dorinda,” I scream, to no one in particular, frightening my dog. “You did make it nice! They should appreciate you!”
Or maybe the Berzerkshires episodes calm me because Bluestone Manor feels literally like a safe space, where, albeit under the influence of Bravo producers and a metric ton of Pinot Grigio, the women of RHONY are allowed to feel everything and express it, loudly. The Housewives can be angry and stand up for themselves and be passionate about the things that are important to them, no matter how inconsequential or ridiculous it might seem to us for Sonja to be upset that Dorinda touched the Morgan letters!
There’s the visceral, rubbernecking, escapist pleasure of watching rich women get drunk and fight about who slept with whose ex and who stole whose tie-in product idea. But there’s another pleasure in watching over-the-top conflict escalate and de-escalate in rapid succession, over and over again, knowing that it will resolve. It makes real-world conflict feel less daunting and scary. And while the Real Housewives aren’t exactly the ideal model of how to be a person in the world, especially now, if Bethenny and LuAnn can rattle the dining room furniture over who stole whose hairstyle, then I can give myself space to feel what I need to feel, and feel safe in (more calmly and rationally) telling people how I feel.
So while social distancing, I’ll keep checking in with my loved ones, checking in with my community to see how I can help, and revisiting with my loud, rich, eccentric television aunties, and try to remember at this challenging time, to own my feelings, and to feel a little less guilty about pleasure.
How I Keep Calm is our new series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.