For years, as a critical surveyor of Bravo’s many Real Housewives franchises, I have operated under the assumption that the network had peaked with the introduction of its golden three: Real Housewives of Atlanta, Real Housewives of New York, and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. These were the enclaves of wealth and out-of-touch women I desperately wanted eyes and cameras on. A few failed startups, in Miami and D.C., attempted to capture that magic again to no avail. Real Housewives of Dallas is overwhelmingly racist, and it has taken a few seasons for rising star Real Housewives of Potomac to really find its footing.
But nothing I have ever seen on television has grabbed me and dragged me to hell as quickly as Wednesday night’s Real Housewives of Salt Lake City premiere.
RHOSLC was announced at BravoCon in November 2019, after rumors had been bubbling up on the blogs that a Real Housewives spin-off was in the works for Mormon country, teasing exactly what viewers hoped for: billionaires, Mormonism, and a gaggle of rich women unlike anything else seen on modern reality television. Months into production, rumors swirled that Bravo had fired the original production company and brought in Shed Media, legendary producer and editor of Real Housewives of New York—ostensibly the reason that franchise is as popular as it is today. Things were looking up for the upstart Utah edition.
From its inception, RHOSLC had mounting hurdles to overcome, from waning mass interest in Real Housewives as an entity to a steady culling of the many pillars of drama that have come to define it: Nene Leakes, Lisa Vanderpump, Bethenny Frankel, Tamra Judge, Vicki Gunvalson have all left the franchise. Real Housewives of Orange County, the flagship formerly helmed by the latter two stars, is almost dead in the water midway through season 15. Bravo has yet to find a formula that works for Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, after seasons of mass cast unrest and turnover. As such, Real Housewives of New York has quite a bit to shoulder, as it carries the struggling Real Housewives Cinematic Universe into an unfamiliar era, while Real Housewives of Potomac finally finds its footing and Real Housewives of Dallas overcomes yet another racism scandal.
Like the “pioneer ancestors” whom the rich and fabulous churchgoers of RHOSLC brag about, the show has debuted in uncharted land—to its white settlers, at least—without many resources, and in an unprecedented time for television and big-budget docuseries. Yet I would say, after last night’s premiere, these women have left an indelible mark on the very fabric of Bravo’s utterly American mythos.
RHOSLC, from its name, is centered around Salt Lake City, Utah—the Mormon capital of the world. The imposing Mormon Church, which only allowed Black people to join as of 1978 and which also forbids “acting on” same-sex attraction, rises up out in the background of most shots. While not all of the women are necessarily Mormon, most, by their own omission, stand somewhere on the line. Jen Shah is an ex-Mormon who converted to Islam after marrying her football coach husband. Lisa Barlow, who never cooks and only eats Taco Bell out of her Porsche, describes herself as “Mormon 2.0,” since she owns multiple tequila brands. (The Mormon Church forbids/discourages the consumption of alcohol.) Mary Cosby, who married her step-grandfather after her grandmother died and is perpetually in a legal struggle for the family fortune, is Pentacostal, while Meredith Marks is a Jewish jewelry designer from Chicago. Elsewhere on the spectrum, Heather Gay is ex-Mormon royalty, having been married into the billionaire Gay family, which was “beloved by Howard Hughes.” She descends, by her own admission, from pioneers who settled in Utah, with every living descendant being “pureblood” Mormon. Despite this, she also loves “Black men and homosexuals,” and describes herself as a Mormon who went astray after her divorce.
And then there is Whitney Rose, who is “Mormon Royalty” like Heather, but was excommunicated from the church and her family after she cheated on her husband and got pregnant with her married boss, who is 18 years older than she is.
Through this cast of truly singular characters, Bravo etches out a complex portrait of modern Salt Lake City. The Church reigns supreme, and everyone seems to orbit it, but the trappings of wealth accumulation plague their individual lives, and frequently run up against the tenets of both the church and the larger community they live in. Mary is a fantastic example of this conflict. Through her marriage to her step-grandfather—an “arranged married” directed by her grandmother’s will—she inherited an “empire of churches, restaurants and more,” including the same Pentacostal church she now leads. The arrangement, according to a Salt Lake City Tribune report from 2007, involved multiple lawsuits filed by Mary’s aunt, who claimed Mary and her new husband—who is also her aunt’s step-father—had conspired to deprive her of the fortune they both inherited as a result of their nuptials.
When this vast swathe of human experiences intersects, the results only get more bewildering. At a party for their mutual friend Meredith thrown by Jen (who admits the party is really for herself), Jen and Mary have a conversation I just have to transcribe in its entirety. No other description of it will do it justice:
Jen sits gingerly next to Mary.
Jen: [grabbing Mary’s dress] Is this Valentino?
Mary bites her lip in an awkward silence.
Jen: Of course it is... no, I knew it was.
Mary: I wanted to... so...
Mary: Are we good?
Jen: That’s what I wanted to ask you. We talked, and I told you about my aunt.
Mary: I have a bad, dark place, going to hospitals. I told you I had 12 surgeries getting all my odor glands removed. The worst experience of my life. Dark, very dark. I mean, they lost me twice. I was dying on the table two times. And so that smell... I don’t care if I need a nose job, I am not going to the hospital.
Jen: My aunt just got both legs amputated at the last minute, so when you said “it smells like hospital in here,” you were being mean.
Yes, the climactic fight, which seemingly sets up the entire season, concerns the fact that Jen smelled like a hospital after her aunt had both legs amputated, and the way that smell triggered Mary because she almost died twice during the 12 surgeries to remove her “odor glands.” To call it mind-boggling would undersell the entire affair, as would most other descriptors I have in my lexicon: jaw-dropping, awe-astounding, perplexing, ridiculous, wild, out-of-control. I have simply never seen anything like it on television. Ever, in my entire life spent studying the deep, deep well of reality programming.
There’s more to the premiere, obviously, but I feel the rest should be experienced firsthand. It’s a rare treat to witness something as singular as Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, in what I believe in the new gold standard not just for Bravo’s Real Housewives universe, but the entire reality television industrial complex itself. One episode in, and it’s taken me on a roller-coaster straight into hell—I can’t wait to ride it again, and again, and again.