It's hard to believe that we're halfway through season eight of the Real Housewives of Orange County. Orange County is the Real Housewives franchise that started it all; before New Jersey, before Atlanta and before New York City, there were the big-haired gals of Southern California. When the franchise began to branch out to more storied metropolises, which now include Miami and Beverly Hills, Orange County went under the radar. It wasn't a big ratings getter for Bravo, but unlike DC, the network didn't cancel the series.
Some branches of the franchise, like Beverly Hills and the early runs of New York City, retained their original cast with little to no changes as the moved from season-to-season. But Orange County has had a major cast change for every season of its existence. Starting last year, however, the show began to see an increase in ratings, which was a result in large part to the addition of Heather Dubrow, a brunette in a sea of blonds who shifted friendships that had been running stale for a few seasons.
Looking at this season of OC, it appears the show has finally settled on a cast that makes sense and gels well together, at least in terms of generating high volume drama. Here's a look at the ladies who have brought Orange County back into the forefront of Bravo reality mayhem.
Vicki Gunvalson Based on what we saw this past week, Vicki Gunvalson, otherwise known as the original housewife, may have shot back to relevance. After surviving eight seasons of Orange County, and just as many cast changes, we've watched her go from level-headed business woman and warm-hearted matriarch to desperate divorcee and sanctimonious hypocrite. After her marriage dissolved two seasons ago, she began dating Brooks, a Southern entrepreneur of dubious origins.
Vicki's new beau caused a clash last season with best friend Tamra Barney, but Vicki has proved to bear the brunt of the falling out. Without Tamra, she's simply no fun, and her insistence that she "needs a boy in my life" reeks of self-pity. But this week offered a shocking reveal by Lauri Peterson, one of the original five OC housewives. According to Peterson, Vicki has never been a monogamous girl, even when she was married. Suddenly, Vicki doesn't look like such a tired character after all.
Tamra Barney Tamra joined the Orange County franchise in its third season as a married mother of three who was in the midst of her second marriage. Thanks to an inability to be discreet in any type of social setting involving alcohol, she's emerged as one of the series' headliners. The size of her mouth has grown in tandem with the size of her independence; during the past five seasons, she's divorced her abusive husband, become engaged to a hunk of a California entrepreneur and is on the verge of opening her own fitness studio. She's also provided one of the most interesting story arcs of the past two seasons.
For one, she's no longer the second half of the indomitable Vicki/Tamra duo. Her relationship with Vicki came to an explosive end when Brooks instigated a showdown between the two during the season seven finale. But it seems like the real catalyst between the two older women of OC appears to be Tamra's newfound friendship with former enemy Gretchen. To be clear, the word enemy is an understatement. Tamra loathed Gretchen to the point of slander, and helped Vicki spread rumors of adultery.
Yes, the new Tamra/Gretchen bond has all the tell-tale signs of mean girl fakeness, but it's been oh so fun to watch them in their charge against Vicki's holier-than-thou front. Don't expect the chumminess to last long, though. Based on previews for next week's episode, I wager the two will be enemies again by the end of this season, thus ensuring their contract for at least one more run.
Gretchen Rossi Attractive, bubbly blond Gretchen was a target from the moment she came on the show in season four. She was often interviewed about taking care of her ailing older fiancé Jeff, a man who was married five previous times. According to Vicki and Tamra, she was only in it for the money, which may be true considering Gretchen reportedly inherited more than two million dollars after Jeff's death.
Gretchen is now engaged to another mainstay of the Orange County series, Slade Smiley, who was previously attached to original housewives Jo De LaRosa and Lauri Waring Peterson. Opportunist much? But then again, who isn't? Gretchen has always been a fan favorite, mostly because of her ability to shuck the older women's gossip to the wind and live life like the Malibu Barbie that she is. Here's to hoping her friendship with Tamra stays intact and that she can channel all that good fortune into a meaningful business. And by meaningful business, we don't mean Pussycat Doll stand-in.
Alexis Bellino Every great reality series cast has one character that everyone can agree is a bad person. Alexis is hands down the OC villain, not because she's malicious in her actions, but because she offends the very fiber of middle-class morality. (The audience for these Real Housewives franchises is made up of the working class, not the privileged they represent.) Since joining the cast in the show's fifth season, she repeatedly enumerates her material possessions for anyone who will listen, and erroneously equates her tacky fashion line with holding down a real job. And to whom does she chuck up her good fortune? God.
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Alexis has become so indefensible in her gross lap of luxury that even best friend Gretchen Rossi abandoned her side in favor of Tamra and Heather Dubrow. Now Alexis is stuck with a fake friendship with Vicki out of necessity. Next week's episode may be a turning point for Alexis as it seems Gretchen might be headed to a falling out with Tamra. Will Gretchen reconcile with Alexis and bring her back into Orange County's good gracious. We hope not.
Heather Dubrow The former television actress joined the show last season, and the quick-witted brunette is single-handedly responsible for adding a bit of brains to the group. Her New York City sensibilities have shone through in her style, her penchant for fine dining and her avoidance of all things blond. Nicknamed "fancy pants" because of her love of champagne and repulsion for shots, Heather has no problem letting the other housewives know she's a step above them in the class department.
Heather really showed her smarts in her debut season by joining the cool kids alliance along with Tamra and Gretchen, and helping mobilize the group against Alexis' pretension and unabashed materialism. Yes, Heather happens to live in a beachside mansion on Pelican Hill while throwing dinner parties where guests take home diamonds as party favors, but she doesn't flaunt her wealth, dammit. Or, at the very least she wins for fooling everyone into thinking that she doesn't. Lydia McLaughlin Season eight is more than halfway over and we still don't know who Lydia is other than the fact that she comes from a wealthy family. Then again, on this show, that's all you really need to know. The mousy brunette was probably added to the cast because of her connection to Alexis. After last season's reunion, when it was apparent that all of the other housewives would have nothing to do with Alexis, the producers needed someone who would film with her.
Lydia hasn't done anything to stir the pot, but she does earn points for having brains enough to be skeptical of Alexis' claims of being bullied, which led to a subsequent bout of depression. Lydia is loopy and clearly stuck in a make believe world of money, but good for her. She works so well on the show because she's what we want in a rich and pretty socialite: she's naïve, squeaky-voiced out of a lack of a need to do anything more assertive than to order a lemon drop, and completely out of touch with reality. If only we could be in her shoes for a day.