Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 'Southern Charm' Is the Anti-Romance Reality Show
While 'The Bachelor' is an aspirational romantic fantasy, writes the THR columnist, the Bravo show, whose castmember Thomas Ravenel has been accused of sexual assault, is an object lesson in how not to pursue love.
Can reality shows accurately convey the shambolic complexities of seeking romance in America? Watching the desperate relationship-challenged compete on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette is like watching Hunger Games set in a sunny Hallmark version of high school prom. Everyone ruthlessly stampedes toward their chance of being crowned prom king or queen, thereby validating their self-worth. The shows’ elaborate settings of gaudy gowns, sloppy kisses and blubbery confessions of everlasting love are a bedazzled projection of America’s idealization of romantic love — which is at once touching and infantile. And highly entertaining. We all wish the pursuit of love were as ordered and effervescent as on these optimistic shows. But, while The Bachelor franchise peddles rose-colored romantic fantasies of happily ever after, Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules and Southern Charm deliver the down-and-dirty daily lives of the messy quest for love, lust and shabby fame; in other words: what really happens in millennial relationships after the meet-cute fades. What they reveal about their attitudes about romantic relationships may be the most honest, heartfelt and horrifying of any of the reality shows.
While Vanderpump Rules shows the working-class folk with their sweaty sheen from hustling after celebrity, Southern Charm revels in the snooty antics of the slightly privileged class. There is a raw grittiness in the lives of these bartenders and waitresses and of the Southern family progeny with big dreams based more on the entitlement of hard bodies or family background than on hard work. But celebrity, which is a ride-or-die goal for the Vanderpump crew, is merely an amusing pastime for the cast of Southern Charm. It is clear that without the C-list celebrity of the show, the Vanderpump cast would quickly fade into quiet obscurity, recounting their days of glory as they pour drinks or deliver appetizers or marry wealthy. This group of waitstaff, bartenders and hostesses’ brazen aspirations to fame as actors, singers and performers is both commendable and sad. Commendable because we all want to root for the up-from-nothing artist who finds La La Land-like success. But wanting something doesn’t make you worthy of it. So, the sadness comes when we see what they’re willing to trade to clutch this tawdry hem of celebrity.
With the Southern Charm-ers, the impression is that when this show ends, they will not be as affected, either in their careers or social relationships. Their futures, although wobbly at times, are already at the end of a track built by the inevitability of tradition and wealth. These stereotypes are not true of every castmember, but it generally describes most. They may enjoy the benefits of minor celebrity, but it is not part of their vision board. They seem more intent on pleasing their families, which is why we see so many scenes of them visiting parents for advice, while the Vanderpump gang are mostly transplants, geographically orphaned by their ambition.
What’s especially interesting is that, despite these notable class differences, both groups are equally bumbling in their romantic pursuits. The shows are similar in that they feature mostly clueless thirtysomethings navigating the rocky shallows of love under the guidance of an older, supposedly wiser relationship guru who dispenses advice like Pez candies. Lisa Vanderpump, the lioness of The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, owns the restaurant where her acolytes work. She’s the boss, mother confessor and matron. Her advice, though often sensible and enlightened, is generally ignored.
In contrast to Lisa Vanderpump, Thomas Ravenel, 55, the self-appointed raconteur of raunch and romance of the elite males of Southern Charm, is being investigated for sexual assault based on the May 6 accusations of two women. On the show, his goal seems to be to prove how young and vital he is. He does this by smirking at, ogling and fondling much younger women in front of much younger men. Patricia Altschul (whose name translates appropriately for her brand of advice to “old school”) is the wealthy mother of one of the older male castmembers. Her advice is as steeped in Southern formalities as a tea bag in sun tea. Basically, it amounts to “When in doubt, do what tradition dictates.” Their advice, too, is usually ignored. Thankfully.
The romance bottom line is that regardless of class status, sources of advice or potential future economic success, very few of these men or women have the ability to form meaningful, lasting relationships, even though they say that is their goal. Perhaps part of the problem is that most of their interactions are awash in alcohol — and lots of it. There is rarely an occasion, minor or major, that does not result in massive drinking. This has led to some bad choices, from regrettable hookups to cheating on partners to losing jobs. This pretty accurately reflects America’s own relationship issues with alcohol as a social lubricant. There is hardly a TV show or movie in which alcohol is not a prominent part of the romantic relationship. The fact that so many castmembers make so many bad choices because they have so little insight into their lives, suggests that alcohol may be both a cause of their problems and a way to avoid dealing with their poor decisions.
Each cast has a cautionary symbol of dead-end relationships, a Ghost of Relationships Future haunting the others as a warning: “Don’t end up like these knuckleheads.” Jax is the beefy troll of Vanderpump Rules; Shep is the charming, educated man-child of Southern Charm. Both are 38, yet, neither has enough perception to change the disastrous romantic course their lives are on. This past season on both shows, we’ve seen many relationships, even longtime marriages, implode. Any viewer could see the signs, not just of the cracks in those relationships that have now ended, but in the ones that will eventually end. The lesson is a simple (and adapted from philosopher George Santayana): Those who do not learn from past relationships, their own and others’, are condemned to repeat them. We can watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette to fantasize about romantic love, but if we want our youth to learn valuable do’s and don’ts lessons they can actually apply to real relationships, they should watch Vanderpump Rules and Southern Charm.