Okay, I'll admit it: I watch the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," and I love it. I know it's de rigueur to call reality TV a "guilty pleasure" and feel ashamed for not reading back issues of the New Yorker instead, but it's actually gotten me thinking about drinking.
Here are some of my thoughts:
The Show Accurately Reflects Our Booze-Soaked Culture: Just as drinking has played a central role in all cultures since the beginning of time, so alcohol is an unacknowledged main character in the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." Watch any scene of the ladies staying in or going out, and chardonnay, margaritas or some other kind of booze is most likely involved. Listen to their grateful sighs as someone hands them a glass.
The Beverly Hills Housewives, C'est Moi: It's easy for me to watch the show and shake my head or roll my eyes, thinking, Thank God I'm nothing like these women. But underneath the boob jobs, botox and Mean Girl smiles, these women are just as vulnerable and damaged as everyone else. Watch for the human moments, like Kyle's strained relationship with her troubled sister, Kim. She alternates between wanting to protect Kim and wanting to wring her neck. When Kyle spots Kim walking into the opening of Lisa's latest restaurant after they've had a monstrous fight, she summons the waiter, jokes about "needing a drink" and gives a sly wink. But we all know she's serious. Many women have troubled relationships with family members, and just like many of us, Kyle sometimes uses alcohol to cope with the stress.
Drinking is Like Russian Roulette: Thrilling for many, potentially deadly for some. When it comes to drinking, life's not fair. Some women, like Kyle Richards, can keep up with the best of 'em, participating in seemingly endless alcohol-soaked "Girls' Night Outs" without many repercussions. Others, like her sister, Kim, take a bullet when they drink. There's no use bemoaning the fact that it's unfair -- that's just the way it is.
There But For the Grace of God Go We All: It's easy to judge Kim more harshly than the rest of the women -- as an out-of-control, weepy mess. But why? They all drink, and sometimes when they do, they behave in strange ways (see Brandi Glanville's bizarre, loopy behavior on the way to Hawaii and Taylor Armstrong's drunken weeping fits). Kim just happens to have a body/mind chemistry not suited to holding her liquor (and whatever else she might have been on).
Drinking Can be a Great Force for Bonding: Sometimes, when I watch the women sitting around one of their houses, clinking glasses, I wish I were sitting right there with them. Why? Because it reminds me of the ritual fun of Girl's Night Out, of times when a bottle of wine loosens lips and creates a comfortable space for sharing and/or hilarity. Can you picture the show without the booze? Can you imagine the women, some of them near-strangers at the beginning of the season -- opening up to each other as quickly as they do, stirring up so much drama - -without the booze?
When It Comes to Addiction, The Show Is a Litmus Test: At times, when I'm watching the show, there's a voice in my head that nags, Why can't Kim just quit? Can't she see how irrational she's being? How bizarre? How much her behavior (her chronic lateness, for one) is driving everyone crazy? I find myself getting mad at her for her selfishness, her weakness. That's when I remember why it's hard for me to have compassion: Like Kyle, I, too, have lived at the effect of addicts. Both my mother and sister have struggled with addiction. I, too, have felt a mixture of anger, pity, guilt and love. I know what it feels like to want to help but not be able to. So when I empathize with Kyle and disparage Kim in my mind, I know that I need to reboot and remind myself of that thing called compassion. It's a struggle for us children of alcoholics. I have to remind myself that Kim doesn't want to be "like that." Her addiction has taken over, and she's powerless. At the same time, I find myself talking to Kyle when she's on the screen, saying, "Give yourself a time out. You don't have to be the fall guy. You have to live your own life, too."
The show reflects many of the contradictions that we embrace on our Drinking Diaries blog. We live in a drinking world, and there's got to be a way for drinkers and non-drinkers to peacefully co-exist, to understand each other and be respectful.
On the last episode of this season, as I watched Lisa, Adrienne, Kyle, Camille and even a battle-scarred Taylor gathering for yet another round of champagne, clinking glasses in yet another toast, I found myself worrying about Kim. A sidebar comment revealed that she went to rehab, and all I could think was: How will she re-enter this group, with all the drinking? Will she be able to resist the temptation? Will they adopt different behaviors around her? Will Kyle feel too guilty to drink around her?
Even though the Real Housewives takes place in the surreal world of Beverly Hills, these are issues many of us will face, no matter where we live.
Rumors are going around that Kim won't return for the next season because she'll be too fragile, too vulnerable. But perhaps that's where her real story starts. When she comes back from rehab, if she manages to stay sober, Kim Richards, the butt of many a joke and stolen glance -- may turn the tables on everyone. She may actually end up being the sanest housewife of them all -- a role model for others who are struggling to stay sober in a sodden land.
Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.