I once briefly appeared on an episode of The Real World. But I have almost no relationship with reality television otherwise.
This put me at a slight disadvantage to review Fake Friends’ This American Wife which takes as its primary text for exploration and interrogation, The Real Housewives franchise. But the show also makes a rigorous inquiry into performance, reality, realness, authenticity, queerness, intimacy and truth. And I am, at least, not a stranger to these.
The closest I’ve ever come to being a reality show fanatic is watching 70 episodes of a Korean travel variety show called 2 Days & 1 Night over the past two months (I’m a little obsessed with the gender power dynamics operating behind-the-scenes which is WHOLLY not the point of the show but I will for sure write an essay on that literally no one will read. It’s good to have hobbies.).
But the more I watch 2 Days, the more I am aware of how the performers are using the camera, “creating” the show, and are conscious of their frequent need to entertain. Sometimes their slip shows and it reframes everything.
A character on a recent episode suddenly said on-camera, “we’ve done our screen time so now I’m going to sleep.” He delivered his “performance” and he was going to turn “it” off while the cameras kept rolling. This abrupt dissolution of “on-ness” sent me into a momentary spiral. What exactly had been “real” on the show and how much was to achieve certain story beats? Was there target screen-time for all the “characters?” How manipulated were the scenes when people cried? Was the only real truth in the show the on-screen farts?
Something about This American Wife also conjured Thoreau’s phrase, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” in my mind. Perhaps it was something about Thoreau’s self-mythologizing, his over-developed sense of self, or his act of going to the woods and making sure YOU KNOW HE WENT TO THE WOODS. God, I hate Thoreau.
But here Fake Friends arguably went to Great Neck to live deliberately on camera and self-mythology, constructed identities, and performance all came with them.
After seeing a number of Fake Friends shows, I find their work tends to send me off on these kinds of seemingly random tangents because they are deeply interested in a layered and a multi-faceted dramaturgy. They are pulling their references from so many places and the anarchic, colorful surface is built on a foundation of intellectual and performance curiosity which I find really satisfying.
A wig isn’t just a wig. Gay men dressing themselves as Housewives to lip-sync well-known scenes is not mimicry. A loaf of Wonder Bread has meaning. Everything is deliberate–from glossy pouty-for-the-camera lips with a sheen so reflective Narcissus himself could get lost in them to Fake Friends product promotion scenes (FF Mayo anyone).
The set-up of This American Wife is essentially, three gay men (Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, Jakeem Dante Powell) obsessed with the Housewives, find themselves following a blond-haired “Wife” and they enter her McMansion and are transformed into sparklier TV versions of themselves.
As they dash around this palatial house with silver wallpaper and a bed piled with a mountain of throw pillows, they perform dialogue from the Housewives, they interview each other with probing questions and uncomfortable invasions, and they compulsively follow the siren-like, faceless Wife whenever she mysteriously appears.
While the stylistic decadence, creative care, performance rituals, and ideas were compelling, I have to sheepishly admit I got bored at times. There’s only so much Housewives dialogue I could take without getting the references. Their performances were, I imagine, flawless recreations (or at least fun ones). But they had a flatness, but especially when placed up against scenes with the on-screen characters, “Michael,” “Patrick,” and “Jakeem.”
The show was most successful when they were using the métier of the Housewives—their lachrymose confessionals, intimate revelations, and their eventual baited fight. It came alive when they were riffing on the RH vibe (as well as the other cinematic and queer texts), but using their own voices.
Though there was one RH scene where Michael and Jakeem are dolled up in wigs and make-up and perform RH monologues and they are both topless while they do this. This unexpected flash of skin shifts the energy entirely. Perhaps I longed for more of this kind of foregrounded clash and incongruity between the RH text and the observation/interrogation of it. Suddenly, the performers bodies and bare male chests shifted the lens on these women, their bodies, and how we view them. That’s a scene I keep turning over in my mind.
Director Rory Pelsue makes effective use of literal lenses as well—the camera moving in close, pressuring or probing, chasing and following, or springing up in unexpected places (the dishwasher?). Overexamined and overexposed lives are given a good cinematic grilling.
Costumes, set, hair, and make-up all deliciously serve the goals of the piece. Whether it’s vacation caftans to twirl in or the creamy white banality of an oversized suburban kitchen they have created a landscape of a specific kind of wealthy America that is recognizable (a pile of throw pillows on a bed so large you could drown in them).
And as I mentioned, the appearances of Wonder Bread and mayo seemed to be subtle (or not so) hints at the Real Housewives’ notorious racial segregation of casts and a white lens perhaps employed by the show.
This cast is exceptional. I was twisting in my seat during their one-on-one confessionals which served up a forced, pressured intimacy. Powell, with a magnetic on-screen presence, delivers an unsettling improvisation discussing his relationship to his body, as we become voyeurs somewhere we don’t want to be. And the finale improv of “allyship” run amok was when I really started to laugh.
Not to overshadow the hilarious and nuanced human performers who left no theater touchstone unturned in that scene (critics, awkward af land acknowledgements, and binaries all get a raking over), but I must also single out the staging of that scene where a dangling garage door pull threatened to steal the whole show.
They were sitting inside a garage in front of green screen and the characters run in from the outside necessitating the garage door be closed after they enter. The green screen is changed to an opulent white, white, white home and white wine is poured. And then tense bickering begins. But as they are setting this all up and the stage manager closes the garage door, the garage door pull slowly chugs along the top of the frame taking its own sweet time to exit. While I am sure this was intentionally included in the frame (or as my film teacher always said, once you put it on screen it becomes intentional), I laughed hardest at this moment of situational reality intruding on someone’s staged reality.