Even in her absence, the specter of Bethenny Frankel looms large on The Real Housewives of New York City franchise. Sure, you can say you're an adult woman who ain't afraid of no ghosts… but suddenly, alone in your house on your 20th day of quarantine, you start hearing faint hisses from the kitchen that sound a lot like, "Meeeention-it-aaaall, meeeention it aaaall." And when you whip open the fridge to see what's inside — you find Skinnygirl deli meat that you know you didn't buy during your allotted once-a-week grocery store visit — BOO! You've been Bethenny'd.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the remaining New York castmates get along just fine without ol' B, and we certainly need all our girls now more than ever. Even when Luann is acting like the second coming of Patti LuPone, I still appreciate the entertainment value she brings to my life in these trying times (not as much as I appreciate actual Patti LuPone's entertainment in these trying times, but still).
But even with the core cast still pulling their weight, there are hints of Bethenny's abrupt departure everywhere. There's new cast member Leah, who is serving distinct Bethenny energy, what with her entrepreneurial spirit and spirited lack of filter; there's Ramona bursting into a sudden bout of heaving sobs, à la any number of your favorite Bethenny-sobbing reaction gifs (my personal favorite is obviously sobbing-while-chugging-Skinnygirl-margarita because: always be branding). And then there's the slightly more subtle instance of Dorinda proclaiming herself "the true entertainer of the group."
Is Dorinda completely correct and making me cackle when she says: "With Sonja, you never know what you're gonna get, with Luann there's always some ticket booth at the front, Ramona always has the same 30 people with the same facelifts and the same 30 dresses on, and Tinsley … well, who would she invite — Scott?" Yes, absolutely; that is a read precise enough to cut glass. But could Dorinda have so boldly proclaimed herself the one-and-only supreme hostess of the group even one minute before this Bethenny-less season 12 premiere? No way. She rented a rooftop with a couple of trays of Melissa's cupcakes, and a 28-year-old roaming around in a stretched out v-neck who I have a sneaking suspicion lives in that bar's utility closet.
But maybe I wouldn't have noticed any of this if the premiere itself hadn't opened with all of the remaining women holding their phones a foot away from their face like your favorite aunt trying to look at Facebook, squinting at the news that Bethenny would not be returning to season 12, and responding with varying levels of emotion. Ramona thinks it's "an f-you" that they're finding out when the rest of the world does, Dorinda says she feels like crying, and a sepia-toned highlight reel of all the times that Bethenny has screamed at Luann throughout the years — "you f--- everyone," "you were born a liar, and you will die a liar," "YOU'RE A SICKO" — reveal that Luann is perfectly fine with the departure.
Luann has even more reason to be in a good mood though because next we see her, she's exiting New York Criminal Court after officially completing her probation from her 2017 arrest. Sonja is alongside her, presumably as moral support, but also to remind her that adding her cabaret show on top of her fragile sobriety last year caused her to be just a touch self-absorbed. Luann totally agrees and promises to look outside herself a little more this year…
Just kidding, she scoffs that they've already been over that, so Sonja just needs to stand by her side so that other people will understand how hard this has been for her. Then she wrestles Sonja into hugging her, and Sonja blankly mumbles, "I know, it's been terrible," while eating her bagel over Luann's shoulder.
Anyway, Sonja has her own things to worry about. Her daughter just left for college and her apartment seems to have turned into one of those rummage shops that mostly sell Disney collectible glasses. Ramona comes to see how she's doing, and Sonja tells Ramona that she doesn't understand how hard it is to be away from her daughter so long because "You just go with [Avery] to Jingle Bell Ball where everyone is under 20 — you're supposed to give them a little space!" Ramona's retort: "What? I like Jingle Ball!"
For the entire duration of this exclamatory visit, Sonja's dog does not once stop humping Ramona's dog…
And who knows, maybe that's what triggers Ramona's emotions about the lack of companionship in her life. It's impossible to say because one minute she's arriving at a bar to meet her friends who all look like the Venn diagram circles that came together to create Ramona … the next minute she's running into a flirty male neighbor who's also there with friends, and it's all one quirky bartender away from becoming an NBC sitcom … and then, suddenly, Ramona is weeping to her least identical friend, Elyse, that she feels so empty, and every day she wakes up alone in her new apartment, she feels like crying. Elyse briefly tries to assure her that she doesn't need a man to feel fulfilled, but Ramona isn't done. Breaking out into full heaving sobs, she croaks out: "I don't want to be alone anymore, I really want to find someone good, and I'm really scared I won't find that, and I really want that."
And while this is surely relatable for many, and an extremely vulnerable moment from Ramona … I can hardly focus on any of it, because the whole time Ramona is crying, not one foot behind her there are two finance bros just carrying on a full conversation as though a 60-year-old woman is not having an existential crisis within spitting distance of them. Something tells me these guys were extremely late adopters of social distancing….
Surely having no trouble with social distancing is Dorinda who recently broke a rib dancing with Carson Kressley (you heard me!), which she says made her have to be more dependent on John during the injury. She tries to spin this into a good thing, but the woman just can't help herself. I present to you her comments about this positive experience with her boyfriend in full: "It has allowed John and I to spend more time together, which has been very good, and a little weird because I'm not used to spending this much time with John, so … familiarity does breed contempt."
Given that Dorinda dates someone she seems to just barely tolerate — and maybe only tolerates for the extra dry-cleaning care he takes with her many sequin blazers — I find her obvious contempt for Tinsley and whatever her whole deal is with Scott more than a little baffling. It's so much more fun when we can just enjoy Dorinda for flying off the handle every once in a while, than in times like these, when she labors over someone like Tinsley.
I find that a lot of my enjoyment of a Housewife comes from whether she knows the difference between punching up and punching down. It was a long road, but I think Bethenny learned that lesson, and it made her a lot easier to enjoy when she could, for example, give Luann a break-even when Luann was being an a--hole because the reason Luann was being an a--hole was so glaringly obvious. Or for a more a current example: Leah playfully telling some dopily handsome 30-year-old plaything of Ramona's that he looks like the kind of guy who stares at himself in the mirror during sex is punching up because that guy is going to be fine no matter what, and Sonja is literally rolling her tongue out of her mouth like a cartoon cat while Leah is teasing him…
Dorinda trying to force Tinsley — a woman so desperate to fulfill a certain WASP-y archetype that she simply cannot let go of a man who willingly calls himself the King of Coupons — to account for how she pays for every single one of her adult hair bows, and if she doesn't, Dorinda is going to imply that she sleeps with Scott in exchange for gifts (which would be fine, who cares, Dorinda!) … is punching down.
If it's not obvious yet, I enjoyed Leah's first foray onto our screens as Tinsley's "friend" she met a few months ago. She's like a cross between Bethenny and Denise from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which is to say, she seems honest and funny, and there is most certainly a deep well of darkness in her that can remain inactive … right up until the moment that it cannot. I enjoyed her nowhere more than at Dorinda's party where everything is going smoothly — with enough young, potential conquests loitering around for Sonja's liking and enough catering to Luann's ego in the form of a drag queen lip-syncing to "Feeling Jovani" — until the moment Tinsley approaches Dorinda to talk about the tension between them. Tinsley simply acknowledges the tension and says she'd like for them to talk about it privately when they're not at a party. Dorinda agrees that's a good idea…
And then tries to get one comment off about how they're always having to drag everything out of Tinsley, and it's not just her that thinks that. Tinsley thinks that it is just Dorinda who thinks that because Dorinda doesn't want to listen to what Tinsley says. "Don't think you're tricky, because you ain't gonna be tricky with me, because I will win every time," Dorinda says, getting well and truly mad. Then they both start telling each other how tough they are, and Dorinda tells Tinsley that she's not going to "ride up on me and make some big statement." Tinsley reminds Dorinda that she didn't want to do this here, and Dorinda says they're finished, storming over to tell Luann and Sonja that, "Tinsley said, 'You think you're all ganster?' And I'm, like, 'Well, I am.'"
And isn't that the meat of it? Dorinda thinks that she is strong and Tinsley is weak. She both doesn’t respect Tinsley because she's weak, but also wants Tinsley to toughen up, but not toughen up to Dorinda. Tinsley is correct when she says she feels like she can't win with Dorinda — she can't. But having Leah on her side might help. Because when everyone comes together for the patented Housewives-on-one-couch-at-the-party moment, Dorinda starts just straight up making fun of Tinsley, telling her to lower her "dolly voice" an, in a weird sing-songy tone, says, "Oh my God, kindergarten is starting, Tinsley, you're gonna be late for the bus!"
It is extremely gratifying to see Leah's jaw drop just like mine did on my couch, and earnestly look Dorinda in the eyes and ask: "Why are you acting like this?" Dorinda ignores her and tosses "You bore me" at Tinsley. But then she trips trying to walk away, which Tinsley calls out, saying her heels look a little big. "The difference is, honey, I bought them, I never laid on my back for them," Dorinda hisses one inch from Tinsley's face. "Oh my God," Leah says, eyes bugging out half in awe, half in shock…
Welcome to season 12, folks — literally, nothing has changed.