Franklin Lakes is a leafy New Jersey suburb of large homes and Republicans. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik lives there; noted Harvard plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan grew up there; and Michael Jackson reportedly bunked there for three months in 2007. According to the U.S. Census, Franklin Lakes is more than 90 percent white; residents voted for John McCain over Barack Obama, 63 percent to 35 percent. But the prosperous burb is about to become known for more than its fastidious lawns and notable (and notorious) residents, as it is the setting for the latest spinoff of Bravo’s wildly successful Real Housewives franchise. The Real Housewives of New Jersey—which comes after series set in Orange County, New York City and Atlanta—premieres on Tuesday, and focuses on five women, two of whom are sisters who are married to brothers.
The opening credits evoke The Sopranos, with shots of highway signs and a final, ominous shot of a “Welcome to New Jersey” sign glowing in the darkness. The matriarch of the show, Caroline, is a no-nonsense 50-something redhead given to pronouncements like “Before I like you, I don’t like you” and “My family is thick as thieves”; her 19-year-old son, Chris, wants to open a chain of strip clubs and car washes. Caroline’s younger sister Dina, who is married to Caroline’s husband’s brother, is an interior decorator and event planner at the family’s catering hall in Paterson, with a 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Teresa’s husband is an “entrepreneur” who appears to work with one other guy at a desk in an anonymous office building; she’s considering getting breast implants and is trying to make her oldest daughter, 7-year-old Gia, into a star. Jacqueline is married to Dina and Caroline’s brother, but before she met him, she was a single mom in Las Vegas; she’s the “sweet” one. Finally, Danielle is a 45-year-old former model (she says) and single mom to two girls; when she was married to her husband, she says she was the first person to get an American Express Black Card in New Jersey, but now she has phone sex with a man she met online who calls himself “GucciModel.”
Of course, these shows are as much about place as they are about the women—and the image of each region that the show portrays is by necessity exaggerated.
“Most women from northern New Jersey tend to think they are well above the ‘Jersey’ stereotype,” said a 24-year-old assistant editor at an online magazine who grew up in Bergen County. “But they’re all pretty nouveau riche.”
The editor continued: “When you’re from northern New Jersey, there are three things people want to know about you: one, what exit on the [Garden State] Parkway; two, what mall do you go to; and three, where do you go down the shore. It’s not so much that there are ‘correct’ answers, just that you are clearly a member of a certain subgroup depending on your answers.”
“The show is all about fetishizing and lampooning conspicuous consumption, so there’s definitely a demographic in New Jersey that lends itself quite well to this,” said Carolyn Murnick, 30, a senior editor at nymag.com who was raised in Somerset County.
“I think everyone’s going to be able to relate to us,” Housewife Teresa told The Observer by phone the other day. “Meaning that we’re really real. We’re more family-oriented. We do more things with our families, as opposed to New York—they’re more in the socialite world. We don’t have that much in Jersey. We do more things with family and friends.”
In the premiere episode, Jacqueline’s 17-year-old daughter, Ashley (from a previous marriage), tells the camera: “I like that she’s a young mom. She’s like the mom in Mean Girls.” The “cool mom” is a recurring theme in all the shows; usually, there are children from a previous marriage, and the kids from that marriage have seen their mom be “saved” by a wealthy man who swoops in and gives them diamonds and ferries them off to the huge house. (Lauri, from the Orange County series, went through this transformation on-air; in the first season, she went from trolling for men at Playboy parties to meeting the “man of her dreams,” George.)
I wondered about the retro nature of these women’s lives—they seem to spend their days making themselves pretty, shopping, gossiping, tanning, taking care of the kids and making sure their husbands have dinner when they get home—and why women like me in New York find them so fascinating.
“There’s something about the women’s immense sense of entitlement and not having ‘earned’ what they feel entitled to,” said Irene, a 34-year-old lawyer. “I mean, that’s probably a natural reaction on the part of any viewer that the producers are aware of and cultivate, I would think! And is certainly a factor feeding into the schadenfreude whenever any of them suffers some sort of ‘failure.’”
“We’re a little attracted to people who are inherently flawed because we can relate to that,” said Emily Paxhia, a 29-year-old research analyst. “For the most part, they’re putting it all kinds of out there. They’re flying the freak flag.”
Dina also has a daughter from a previous marriage, 12-year-old Lexi, who says, “The best thing about living with my mom is, she’s like my sister. If I had a fat old mom, I would hate it.” Later in the episode, Dina is getting her hair done at a salon called the Chateau for a girls’ night out in “the City” (they consider going to Cipriani’s but end up at a bottle-service lounge in the meatpacking district) and says, “It’s very important to keep yourself presentable, especially as a wife. You don’t want to become a mother and let yourself go. I don’t believe in that at all. I think you should always be like your husband’s girlfriend. Otherwise, they’re going to go out and get a girlfriend.”
All together now: Woke up this morning, got myself some sun…