On Monday, Bravo aired Lauren Greenfield’s 2011 documentary Queen of Versailles. It’s about Florida real estate developer David Siegel and his considerably younger wife Jackie, who in a fit of housing bubble lunacy set out to build the largest house in America. The film is fantastic, but it makes me wonder what exactly Bravo was trying to say by showing it. There are obvious similarities between the documentary and Bravo’s regular slate of reality programming, given that the Real Housewives series is frequently about women like Jackie. (Blonde, having many small dogs, oblivious.) And on the Watch What Happens Live that aired immediately after the film, Alexis from the Real Housewives of Orange County said she was obsessed with the film. But the documentary, while fair-minded, is ultimately damning in its portrait of the superrich couple. Bravo’s shows, while hardly flattering to their wealthy protagonists, are nowhere near as openly hostile as Versailles is. Maybe Bravo’s benign acceptance conceals a secret critique.
Queen of Versailles depict the Siegels, one of the biggest time-share resort developers in the world, in a decidedly negative light. After years of bilking working-class vacationers out of their savings and employing questionable financing practices (not to mention rigging the 2000 election, as David implies), the housing crash — which resulted from precisely these sorts of business practices — leaves thousands of their employees without an income. But rather than expressing remorse, Jackie mostly worries that her children might have to go to college. As an army of ex-employees struggles to make ends meet, the Siegels lament not getting to finish building their absurdly giant house. David is a monster, shuffling into a family dinner just long enough to express a mild hatred for his own children. They have to lay off much of their household staff, and the one remaining nanny, now forced to do the work of several people, tearfully admits she hasn’t seen her own teenage son in years. Jackie lets her sleep in the children’s oversized playhouse.
That’s a marked difference from the Bravo approach, in which the affluent are pathetic or ridiculous, but not necessarily loathsome. None of the characters ever achieve self-awareness and remorse the way Jackie does. (In the film, she admits that if she’d paid more attention to the household’s finances, they wouldn’t have had to fire so many people.) Instead, we get season after season and show after show with scenes like the one with Jackie and the playhouse. The out-of-touch are never brought down to reality, just to rehab or court, and then get to defend themselves to the camera. Where Queen of Versailles lets us enjoy the downfall of one example of the wealth gap, Bravo accepts its horrifying existence and revels in the absurdities it creates.
But maybe Andy Cohen is trying to tell us something by showing Versailles. Though Bravo’s shows don’t make you want to start a class war the way the film does, upon reflection, they’re not exactly aspirational either. These are the rich, they tell us, and if we don’t want to get angry based on Million Dollar Listing, well, that’s our problem. Of course, one way to stoke that resentment might be to do what Queen of Versailles does, and show us the member of the marriage making the money, not just the one benefitting from it. But who really wants to watch that Joe dude from Jersey mook around a construction site?
The episode of Watch What Happens, which had Jackie Siegel as a guest alongside Housewife Alexis, continued the mixed message. Sitting Jackie next to a Bravo Housewife made the connection I suspected explicit: Cohen wants to place Versailles inside the Bravo universe. He wants Jackie to be seen as another Housewife, ridiculous but acceptable. The show translated the movie into the language of Bravo, too. After showing a “remix” of a contentious scene from that night’s Housewives, they did the same with Versailles, jokingly AutoTuning the dialogue while playing the scene of their nanny putting on a reindeer suit for laughs. In the movie, that was a heartbreaking moment; now Cohen was making it the barest camp. But Cohen asked Jackie some pointed questions, like if the nanny still sleeps in the playhouse. They played a Price is Right-style game, and in addition to the price of hot dogs and eggs, the guests had to guess the minimum wage in Florida. (Jackie lowballed it.) But then they returned quickly to affable questions about McDonald’s.
What else would you expect from Andy Cohen, though? It was clear he didn’t like Jackie much, but he hasn’t gotten where he has by telling his audience how to think, or by chewing out his guests. Running Versailles and interviewing Jackie gave him an opportunity to show some misgivings about his network’s content, as he does from time to time. But then the show must go on. Why else would we watch? How else would we know that these people exist, doing these things, in all this wretched excess?