Real Housewives of New York City – TIME.

Gold Diggers of 2009

Illustration by Francisco Caceres

If there is a new austerity in America, no one appears to have told Countess LuAnn de Lesseps. In Episode 2 of Season 2 of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City, she gathers family and friends at a parlor in the Hamptons for a champagne birthday party. For her dog.

The tagline De Lesseps speaks in the opening credits of RHNYC is, appropriately, “I never feel guilty about being privileged.” That could be the motto of Bravo, a cable powerhouse whose reality shows follow the pampered class and their various stylists, party planners and other modern-day valets.

You might think that this kind of entertainment would have died with Lehman Brothers. But as the U.S. economy sank this winter, Bravo’s series scored their highest ratings ever. As the parade of CEO hearings–slash–public shamings on Capitol Hill has shown, and Bravo underscores, the wealthy may not be universally loved, but they’re America’s favorite spectacle.

Aren’t we through with the rich by now? Not even close. When big news happens, pop culture tends to react in an opposite way to what media executives and pundits predict. After 9/11, people predicted the end of irony, trash TV and screen violence; we got Stephen Colbert, The Bachelor and 24. The opulent soap Dynasty became a hit amid the massive early-’80s recession; in the Great Depression, movies like Gold Diggers of 1933 packed theaters.

So even as networks are casting working-class sitcoms for fall, Bravo is cashing in on the rich. Bravo began life as a cable arts channel, but like artists of old, it discovered the utility of wealthy patrons. From Project Runway to the Real Housewives franchise (about well-off couples in New York City; Orange County, California; Atlanta; and soon New Jersey), it remade itself with reality TV about upscale consumerism.

There’s plenty of consumption porn on Bravo–Rolexes, cars, vacation homes. But at the heart of it is a specific 21st century definition of luxury: middle-class people buy stuff; rich people buy services. When talismans of indulgence become widespread–lattes, iPhones, etc.–what distinguishes the truly well-to-do is their ability to pay others to do things.

So Bravo chronicled the high maintenance and the people who highly maintain them. No area of pampering was too obscure: luxe hotels (Welcome to the Parker), fashion (The Rachel Zoe Project), hairdressing (Blow Out), real estate (Million Dollar Listing), upscale gyms (Work Out), home d├ęcor (Top Design), even exclusive-travel-booking (First Class All the Way). Whether you snark at the housewives or cheer for Top Chef’s hopeful restaurateurs, there’s always a window-shopping appeal: the aspirational lure of those spa treatments and seared foie gras.

You could, in retrospect, see the makings of the bust in all this. The shows depicted an economy that no longer made stuff but devised services. They also sold a credit-hooked country the idea of “masstige,” or mass luxury. If you couldn’t afford couture, you could at least splurge on trendy clothes at H&M.
But if you want a perfect metaphor for a society selling out to the dollar, look at The Millionaire Matchmaker. Patti Stanger sells wealthy men a dating service–for fees of up to $150,000 a year–mixing retro courtship rules with a mercenary take on romance. However, Stanger tells us (and herself), she has standards. She’ll take only classy rich guys as clients, like the one who shows off a painting he did of Britney Spears tongue-kissing Madonna. “We’re not an escort service!” she insists. Of course not. Those are much cheaper.

Bravo executive vice president Frances Berwick promises more schadenfreude to come. RHNYC taped from summer through fall 2008–meaning we’ll see its stars’ charmed lives against the backdrop of the autumn meltdown. But don’t expect them to start clipping coupons. “We’re certainly sensitive to the feeling that spending excesses are a little taboo,” Berwick says, “but people still want to see it so they can judge other people.”

Truth be told, the appeal of Bravo is not just about seeing the rich get theirs. It also helps us deal with the aftermath of getting ours. After all, its subjects’ shameless indulgence is just a pricier version of America’s credit binge. Maybe we overmortgaged, overbought and undersaved. But hey, at least we weren’t throwing dog parties at Hamptons Hound!

Some people weather bad times by thinking of people who have less. Bravo lets us vent at those who have more–while consuming vicariously through them. This is what makes this kind of escapism so sturdily recession-proof. Laughing at the housewives, we see a comforting moral rebuke to the last national spending spree. And admiring their beach houses and bling, we quietly nurture the seeds of the next one.