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Real Housewives of Auckland is brilliant and utterly appalling

The timing of a show about the wilful extravagance of the ultra-rich could not be worse. But the show couldn’t be better, says Duncan Greive.

There are only two things you need to know about The Real Housewives of Auckland. Firstly, it is absolutely appallingly timed: a show featuring some of the city’s wealthiest residents flaunting their limitless resources at a moment when families across town are sleeping in cars and garages and our social contract seems bent, perhaps broken.

Secondly, it’s probably the year’s most entertaining piece of television, an unscripted drama built on a bonfire of absolute nonsense which is irresistibly compelling.

How you respond to the show will depend entirely on whether you can ignore the grotesquerie it represents for long enough to revel in the very real pleasures it provides. My gut says that this is going to set social media on fire for its entirely nine week run, with one side gasping in horror and the other entranced.

The best response is probably to live with the contradiction, and embrace it for what it is and aspires to be: supremely enjoyable trash TV (and the best embrace of that facet will be Alex Casey’s power rankings, every single week). Real Housewives as a franchise cannot hope to solve inequality of opportunity or a housing crisis. What it can do is provide an outrageous and incredibly graphic glimpse of the true lunacy which exists at the top of our tree. Who knows – it might even make people think about what it is we’re living with, and make them mad enough to vote?

If it does, that will be by accident and not design. The Real Housewives phenomenon is built on a very simple premise: get a small group of very wealthy women together; pour champagne and opportunities for conflict on them; film the results. The trick, as with all reality TV, is in the casting: get it right, and it’s electric.

Gilda Kirkpatrick is a natural born reality killer

Gilda Kirkpatrick is a natural born reality killer

The great news is that the six core cast of The Real Housewives of Auckland are all, to a woman, spectacular. They’re exceptionally wealthy, and – as a result perhaps – do not a single flying fuck what anyone thinks of them. This stands in stark contrast to previous reality TV overnight celebrities, who’ve been desperate to be liked, and latterly desperate to build instagram ‘influencer’ brands off the back of their appearances. The Housewives – already dripping with gold and some already reasonably famous – are just there to cause trouble.

The first we meet is the most pre-show famous: Louise Wallace, ex-journalist and ex-host of The Weakest Link. As she points out during her introduction, she “made her money the old-fashioned way”: by inheriting it. She still lives in the palatial family home, amongst a flock of eager servants. And from there we’re off, meeting the rest of the cast over dinner at Soul Bar, the longtime home of the Housewives set.

There we meet Julia Sloane and Angela Stone and Gilda Kirkpatrick, and immediately the great rolling conflict of the series is set in motion. Gilda fails to stand to greet Angela, a rictus-grinning slashee from Christchurch, and things quickly fall apart. Angela babbles merrily about her plans; Gilda looks bored before savaging Angela for her ambition and her self-absorption – each of which seem like pre-requisites for appearing on the show, but no mind. Angela simply grins back through huge pearlescent teeth, mesmerised by Gilda’s awe-inspiring social brutality, as we all will be. And scene.

Angela Stone staring death in the face

Angela Stone staring death in the face

Later the same four and two more assemble for a birthday lunch for Julia at Ostro, a few hundred metres around the waterfront (the entire series is likely to take place at three locales:  downtown restaurants, hill-clinging mansions and country estates), getting there in the usual relatable Auckland style: limousine and Rolls Royce.

Angela is seated opposite Gilda’s friend Michelle, a slender, ferocious model. On hearing that Angela too is a model, she airily enquires about whather she’s a “plus size”. Cue tears from Angela, wide-eyed shock from Gilda, peacemaking from Louise, consternation about a ruined birthday from Julia and mirthless laughter from Anne Batley-Burton, the “champagne lady”, and the first episode’s exquisitely old world comic relief.

If the above sounds both irresponsibly opulent and entirely trivial then it absolutely should – Real Housewives of Auckland is a show problematic on just about every front you could imagine: theorists on gender, ethnicity, poverty, body image and more are likely to find this show abhorrent.

Which, to be fair, it probably is. But it’s also deliriously addictive and contains in Gilda a truly extraordinary on-screen presence. What’s more, having had the rare privilege of lunching with these women last week, I’m confident that the enmity is real, and six stars have just been shot into our celebrity galaxy. Watching them light up our nights will not be uncomplicated. But it will be utterly transfixing in a way that our reality television has rarely if ever been before.


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