For a Housewife to really earn her keep, she has to make viewers simultaneously hate her, pity her, and (kind of) want to be her. It requires a careful balance of schadenfreude and envy. If you envy her wealth too much, chances are she’s not blowing enough of her money on tiny-dog jewelry, which means she’s probably too classy to be worthy of your pity. If you pity her too much, there’s no joy in hating her.
In the premiere of Bravo’s three-part Real Housewives of New Jersey special “Teresa Checks In,” Teresa Giudice inspires very little envy. Last year, she and her husband Joe were sentenced to prison on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges, and the show begins on June 18, 2015, six months into Teresa’s 15-month sentence, as Joe cares for their daughters on his own and prepares for his own 41-month sentence. Considering this sad state of affairs, the special might make you feel bad for watching at all. With the Giudices’ wealth in question — some estimates suggest that they owe $13.4 million in debt — do we still envy them? When the envy has mostly all turned to pity, is it still possible to revel in schadenfreude?
Some might argue that the Giudices brought this situation upon themselves, so we shouldn’t feel sympathy for them. Others will watch them struggle to maintain appearances in the aftermath of Teresa’s imprisonment — continuing to employ a stylist and make-up artist to gussy up their eldest daughter, Gia, even while the family struggles to pay off their legal fees — and feel only compassion for the pressures the Giudices face in keeping up with the Joneses (and the Gorgas and the Manzos) under the unspoken threat that their net worth might make them unfit for the Housewives franchise if they don’t. Either way, now that Teresa’s in prison, even RHONJ‘s most famous guilty-pleasure moments from the past are more painful to watch. Remember when Danielle hinted that Teresa had a house in foreclosure, which Teresa vehemently denied? Now that a judge has rejected the Giudices’ foreclosure challenge, I’ll bet Teresa winces at that moment.
“Teresa Checks In” begins with shots of the Giudices’ opulent house, with close-ups of the gated entrance and lion fountains. We watch their daughters — Gia, Gabriella, Milania, and Audriana — sliding down the ornate staircases and eating breakfast in a kitchen that looks like it’s paved with Italian-imported marble. In the past, it might’ve been hard to understand why the Giudices would want their real-life drama broadcast across America. Today, it’s slightly easier to understand: They have to pay the bills on this place somehow.
NEXT: When did Gia become so grown up?[pagebreak]
Joe looks particularly stressed out as he literally hammers a massive chunk of frozen sausages apart into individual links to cook for his daughters. “It’s been very tough without Teresa here,” he says, looking as if he might cry. (It’s the first of maybe 73 times that he gets choked up in this episode.) Today is the first anniversary of his father’s death and, to make things worse, his wife can’t be there for Gia’s eighth grade dance. So he has no choice but to sit there, blinking, holding back tears. “The girls,” he says. “They see me sad, they’re gonna get upset.” No one mentions the obvious: The girls are going to see you upset, Joe. You’re on TV.
There’s a strange unwillingness to break the fourth wall and acknowledge that all of this sadness is unfolding in a very public way. The Giudices continually warn each other not get too upset in front of other people — even though other people already includes every last American who’s watching at home on the couch. In the “Previously On Real Housewives” segment that opens the special, we see Teresa lying on the floor, pleading to God, “I really need protection right now. Please protect our family.” Of course, she’s the one who opened the family up to public scrutiny. To paraphrase Skyler from Breaking Bad: Someone has to protect this family from the woman who protects this family.
There are many emotional scenes throughout the hour. Joe cries while planting a tree near his father’s grave. Gia cries when Teresa’s stylist gives her a heart necklace to represent that Teresa will always be there for her, a gift that’s extra sad, because Teresa doesn’t even know that it exists. When Teresa calls from prison to wish Gia a good time at the dance, and Gia’s eyes get watery, Teresa warns her not to cry in front of Teresa’s dad, whose poor health couldn’t withstand a breakdown. But many of Teresa’s actual phone conversations with her daughters feel oddly neutral, a monotone exchange of how are yous and fines. You get the sense that just filming RHONJ is pleasantly anesthetizing for the Giudices. Does it make it easier for them to play this out on television, where they can let producers coach them through a strange new life that they might not know how to handle themselves? Does being on this show give them the distance they need to deal with this whole thing, as if it’s just a story they’re play-acting out on television?
That would explain why Gia seems most comfortable dealing with her emotions when she’s talking directly to the camera. Everything that comes out of her mouth sounds like it was written by a crisis management professional who selected only words that would stir up the least amount of controversy. Prompted to speak about her mother’s imprisonment, Gia says calmly, “It’s been different, but we have the support of our family, so it helps a lot.” Asked what she thinks of her aunt Melissa Gorga, a longtime rival of Teresa’s who’s suddenly offering support to the Giudices now that they’ve fallen on unfortunate times, Gia says neutrally, “My aunt Melissa she tells me she’s there for me, and I appreciate it a lot, but I’m not comfortable with it yet.” It’s easy to forget that this is an eighth-grader talking. She’s both impressively mature and scarily media-trained for someone her age. It should make her mom proud — and sad, too.
NEXT: Is Teresa actually happier in prison?
You get the sense that Gia’s checking off some middle-aged producer’s talking points even when she talks about Teresa’s new life behind bars. “She’s so relaxed!” Gia insists, as if Bravo suddenly gifted Teresa with a paid vacation. “There’s no bags under her eyes… she looks so much better.” Throughout the episode, the Giudices make the Danbury, Connecticut, facility that holds Teresa sound like a rejuvenating spa constructed for the cast of Orange Is the New Black. We learn that they have spin classes and yoga there. Although she doesn’t have access to the internet, Teresa can send unlimited emails. She watches Magic Mike with fellow inmates, later telling Joe that she imagined his head on those chiseled bodies. Apparently, security is so loose that she manages to send roses to Gia on the night of the dance. (“I have my ways,” Teresa says.) Come to think of it, maybe prison is a bit of a vacation for Teresa. Granted, it’s still prison. It’s still a humiliating, heartbreaking place to end up. But it also offers a much-needed break from being on camera, obsessing over RHONJ gossip, and committing new faux pas. It’s a place where a woman could be known for worse things than flipping a table. In a few very specific ways, maybe things are less stressful there than they are at home.
The biggest problem seems to be that Teresa must deal with other inmates having loud sex, which prompts Joe’s sister to ask if he’ll have a boyfriend in prison. He laughs off the idea of being “a corndogger,” but from the anxious look in his eyes, it’s obvious that serving his sentence means more to him than a homophobic joke. The guy is legitimately scared, and for good reason. He must know that other inmates aren’t likely to treat a fancy reality TV star kindly. And there’s still a chance that Joe could get deported back to Italy, losing his kids along with his wife.
The most compelling thing about RHONJ has always been watching how reality-TV fame affects a family. That applies to extended family, too. Due to their bad fortune, the Giudices are grabbing the most screen time, and it’s interesting to see the Gorgas scramble to use that bad press to their advantage. Melissa has recast herself as a Good Samaritan, always there to help the Giudice girls with “anything, be it a ride or a tampon,” as she puts it. (Though Joe has complained that Melissa has never even visited Teresa in jail.) Melissa’s husband Joe never misses an opportunity to take a passive-aggressive shot at his sister Teresa, pointing out that they were both saints as kids and he’s shocked — shocked, he tells you! — that Teresa did something so bad, as if he’s still a golden boy himself. (Rumor has it that Teresa still blames him for her going to jail.)
Somehow, though, it’s the Giudices who benefit most, at least on screen, from these hard times. It’s helping them rehabilitate their image. Their long-distance phone calls are actually sweet, devoid of any expected resentment. Teresa gushes that she loved Joe’s letter, where he said he couldn’t wait to grow old with her. Joe corrects her just slightly: The actual sentence was “I hope that we can grow old together.” The word choice is telling, considering the lingering question of his deportation, but that uncertainty only makes the conversation more tender. You might hate them. You might pity them. But through all this, it seems like their love got stronger. At least envy them for that.