She may have stopped drinking – for the most part – but Ronnie Negus, the wealthy, puffy-lipped Real Housewife of Vancouver with the oceanfront estate and the California vineyard, says the show's portrayal of her as a sloppy, sometimes hostile alcoholic is not, in fact, real.
Negus offers a concrete example: That scene in the first season, where she's doing her bull-riding routine and waving a scarf around, yelling "Arriba!" – obviously hammered? The display, she confides, followed an unscheduled three-hour break during which the cameras were supposedly broken. What else was she supposed to do with the downtime other than drink?
"You know, they filmed 3,000 hours, and 11 make it," said Negus this week. "Was I drunk all the time? Hell, no."
Turn up your nose at the content – or the producers' methods for achieving it – but The Real Housewives of Vancouver is one of the few bright spots in the B.C. film-and-TV industry, which is currently fighting for its life as more attractive tax credits out East lure shows away from British Columbia, or threaten to. Housewives may not have the production budget, or job opportunities, of a big feature film or long-running scripted series, but it's a ratings success – not to mention a weekly commercial for Vancouver, with its beautiful scenery and people. Negus, for one, with her great looks and great wealth, seems right out of central casting.
"Life's a journey," she says, in voice-over as viewers see her strolling, bikini-clad, on a dock in the show's Season 2 opening sequence, which airs Tuesday. "It's just more fun on a private jet."
With a format licensed from NBC, which produces the series in a number of U.S. markets, The Real Housewives of Vancouver is a 21st-century sociological experiment in narcissism, voyeurism and good old-fashioned schadenfreude: Throw five or six rich, underemployed women into a spa-treatment room or seaside soiree, and let the booze flow and the cameras roll. The many grievances that result may be petty, but the stakes are high.
This week, more than 2,200 reality-TV types – up from some 1,500 delegates last year – descended on Washington for the Realscreen Summit, a non-fiction-TV-and-film industry conference. There, they heard that reality shows make up the lion's share of original prime-time programming on cable, and that last year 31 of the top 50 series on U.S. cable were reality shows. Also in 2012, audiences for unscripted series on the big four American broadcast networks were 25 per cent stronger than the overall scripted series average.
"Comedic ensembles are the next big things," said David Paperny, president of Vancouver-based Paperny Entertainment, on his way home from the conference this week. "Shows like Duck Dynasty or its more disreputable cousin Honey Boo Boo are the big thing: situation comedies set in real worlds with real people who know how to make fun of themselves."
In Vancouver, currently struggling with a steep decline in production work, the genre is an important success story, with long-established companies such as Paperny, Force Four and Omnifilm Entertainment developing and producing a wide range of series – and not just wince-worthy stuff like Real Housewives. Shows such as Paperny's Yukon Gold, premiering next month, and Force Four's Border Security aim to educate and inform rather than simply titillate and provoke.
Newcomer Lark Productions hit it out of the park with The Real Housewives of Vancouver when the show premiered last year. The first episode attracted 1.2 million viewers, a Slice record, and remains the top-rated show in Slice's history.
Lark Productions was launched in late 2010 by broadcast veteran Louise Clark. Within a few months, and within two weeks of each other, Lark landed two big series: Housewives; and Gastown Gamble, picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network. (Lark's first scripted series, Motive, premieres on CTV right after the Superbowl on Sunday – and it's been picked up by ABC.)
This week, two key Lark contributors opened up about the process behind the creation of the show that has put the company on the map. "It's all about casting," said executive producer Grant Greschuk during an interview in the royal suite of a local hotel, while in the room next door the housewives lunched on salad niçoise and edamame. Added Erin Haskett, executive producer and vice-president of development at Lark, "We made an agreement that we weren't going to do [Real Housewives] unless we could find [the talent], because otherwise you'd be making a half-baked show."
Very early in the process, Haskett, in an effort to infiltrate the ladies-who-lunch community, pulled off a National Geographic-style anthropological field mission with a researcher. They put on their best dresses, had their hair and makeup done, and hit a black-tie fundraising gala at a Vancouver steakhouse. "It was very targeted," says Haskett. "It was never an open casting call, because with something like that, you end up with crazies."
In the development stage, the team looked at both Vancouver and Toronto. Vancouver came out on top for several reasons. For one thing, the Rosedale movers and shakers didn't seem to mix enough with the Bridle Path types to produce the connections and conflicts upon which a show like this depends. As well, says Greschuk, "Toronto seemed to be a bit more reserved and we couldn't quite find the right group of women."
"We knew that Vancouver would give us a sexier, more glamorous look," says Haskett. "We'd have the ocean and the mountains and the city of glass, which was just very publicized with the Olympics."
During development, members of the Lark team met with the producers of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Working with the California production company, the Canadians noticed that many of the series' writers and directors were refugees from the doomed soap-opera industry. This made sense, says Haskett. "If you think about it, Housewives is the new soap opera. We're the new Dynasty, the new Dallas, or the new General Hospital."
Maybe we're just hate-watching the Housewives, but Haskett believes it's more than that, a kind of gilded mirror through which we can view an extreme version of our own lives. One of the key messages at Realscreen was that viewers want to feel a range of emotions from reality programming. The key to that, says Haskett, who was in Washington to hear this, is finding a good character: a Ronnie Negus with whom we can somehow relate. Maybe, like Ronnie, we have a special-needs child, and dream of giving her the kind of life that comes with owning your own plane and winery.
"Our housewives are mothers," says Haskett. "They have relationships. They try to have good friendships with their girlfriends. But they live it in an extreme version. They get to do it in amazing heels and with beautiful hair and makeup and great dresses."
Editor's Note: Yukon Gold premieres next month. A previous version of this article said the show premiered next week.