At this point in the Real Housewives franchise, the bug-eyed women of New York have shed their pre-fame personalities and are basically D-list actors playing the roles the Bravo producers want them to play. New blood keeps the franchise humming along, and while I would gladly watch Ramona Singer press her breasts against the tanned sternums of New York City’s eligible Boomer bachelors, even that becomes boring after a while. Swapping Bethenny Frankel out for Leah McSweeney, though, has reinvigorated the franchise in a way I didn’t think possible.
McSweeney is the founder of Married to the Mob, a streetwear line marketed towards women, and while “clothing line impresario” is an acceptable Housewife profession, I’m having difficulty picturing Dorinda Medley in a knockoff Supreme-logo t-shirt that reads “Bitch.” She’s almost 10 years younger than the youngest Housewife, Tinsley, and though that age gap might seem insignificant, the generational divide between McSweeney and say, Ramona Singer, who says she is 62, shows. Her tattoos, most of which are innocuous, have already become a plot point early on in the season. She lives in a charming and very nice apartment “downtown”—a two-bedroom with nice parquet floors and skate decks hanging on the wall as art. Because this apartment is not a townhouse under perpetual renovation on the Upper East Side, though, the other women are incapable of understanding or mustering the politesse to simply say that it’s nice and move on.
“I love how humble she is,” Luann eventually says to a producer, who prods her gently off-screen to share her true feelings about McSweeney’s home after visiting it. Humble, of course, is not-so-secret code for declassé and poor, but McSweeney’s apartment is neither. “Most people who come to my apartment are pretty impressed with it,” McSweeney says in a confessional, “unless you’re in the one percent, which I’m not.” This crucial class distinction is of course what makes McSweeney such a compelling addition to the cast, and though I’m sure her shtick will eventually grate on my nerves as the season winds on, it’s been a real treat to watch for now.
While the other women are messy in ways that are now largely predictable and manufactured, McSweeney’s predilection for wilding out feels less scripted and more authentic, as evidenced by her antics at Ramona’s Hamptons getaway cottage—a harrowing 45 minutes of beautifully nasty reality TV that included nudity, the destruction of public property, and McSweeney, naked but for a thong, throwing lit tiki torches into the bushes, screaming, “These represent bad things!” This behavior would not seem out of place for any of the other Housewives, but at this point, viewers are so used to seeing the blurred vortex of Sonja Morgan’s vagina that to see someone else lead the charge was a pleasant change of pace.
Most importantly, though, is that McSweeney really doesn’t seem to give a fuck—and it’s this quality that will sustain her throughout the rest of this season and beyond, should that be what she desires. Dorinda Medley, plagued by a Page Six item that crows over her recent breakup with John Mahdessian, and forever haunted by the specter of her dead husband, Richard, doubles down on her new role as callous, mean, drunk, and picks a fight with Tinsley Mortimer over lunch at an apple orchard. Tinsely bursts into tears and Leah, ever the wise one, sits back and watches as the other women scream at each other, picking at old wounds. “I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for Dorinda, having to bury her husband, but what does that have to do with Tinsley?” she asks in a confessional, making a valid point that the rest of the women are incapable of considering only because they are dedicated to the storyline. McSweeney lacks the context and chooses instead to govern by logic—something the franchise lacks in great quantities.
It’s hardly revolutionary to say that a new person on an aging television program makes the show fun to watch again, but adding McSweeney and letting her rock proves that the franchise itself isn’t stale, but the women populating Bravo’s reality TV offerings are.