Ranking the Cast: The Real Housewives

The Bravo Real Housewives franchise began as a relatively straight portrayal of the lives of affluent friends in Southern California, but it has gradually evolved and now encompasses women who aren't really housewives and who don't really know each other outside of their show. What's important is that they provide the sorts of dramatics that audiences who have grown up on Jerry Springer have come to expect. But while all four of the current Housewives series are hilarious in their own way, that does not mean we can't rank them in order of relative craziness.

1. New York: This version has everything going for it. After two seasons, they have a lot of interpersonal drama behind them, and the latest addition to the cast made up for lost time in a hurry. The spouses, as a group, are the most distinctive of the Housewives bunch. And while all the women on all the shows are very well-off, money seems ever present here in a way it doesn't on the other versions. Truly, this has become a cast that we love to hate. What can you say about a person who, without irony, calls herself a countess?

This show had a promising beginning in 2008, but it was definitely put into the loony stratosphere with the arrival of Kelly in the second season. This was an important event in Housewives history, since it proved to the producers that they could recast or augment a cast specifically to provide extra drama, which was something they had not seemed to do in Orange County. Kelly's feuds and her police record make her an obvious keeper. Bethenny has proven to be Kelly's greatest foil; while she needs to cut back on the face and body work before she becomes a total mess, she is easily the wittiest Housewife in any of the series. The Countess, Jill, Ramona, and Alex (and her flake-o husband) have all had their moments as well. Congratulations, ladies -- but make sure you keep Kelly around.

2. New Jersey: It seemed as if was inviting so many stereotypes that it couldn't possibly work: a Housewives show set in New Jersey, with most of the cast members being Italian and three of the five being related. But America's appetite for watching nasal screaming and bleeped cursing is endless, judging from the reaction to the just-ended first season. The only reason this group isn't ranked first is the relative lack of a track record (it just debuted in May). The cast as it is works fine; the only real question is whether there's any place to go from here, after the climactic dinner party that saw Teresa flipping a table in her fury.

The key performers in the bunch are the relative outsider Danielle, who has the bad plastic surgery and lurid (even by Housewives standards) past; and Caroline, the oldest and most sharp-tongued of the bunch. As there seems to be no way the fences can ever be mended between these two, or between Danielle and Caroline's sister Dina, New Jersey will always have built-in tension. Teresa's conspicuous spending, stage mom behavior, and occasional overturning of dinner tables makes her a keeper as well. As for Jacqueline, well, she's a bit of a slacker in the drama department -- staying friendly with Danielle creates some tension, but it's not that interesting. Still, she has time to improve and become more of a holy terror.

3. Orange County: The pioneer Housewives are in danger of being left behind by history. It's like the way young girls think the Backstreet Boys are the coolest thing imaginable, and then eventually they discover the Flaming Lips and realize what they've been missing. When the Housewives format was new and we had no one else to compare them to, Orange County was more than adequate, but more recent editions have left them looking somewhat old hat, to the point where their future has to be called into question.

The problems with this version began when Jo, a source of jealousy due to her relative youth and looks, bailed out after the second season. Her first replacement, Quinn, was the weakest character in Housewives history, unless you find watching a boy-crazy 50-year-old woman to be entertaining. The biggest problem with this series is that it became entirely too realistic at points. The death of Tammy's ex-husband, Lou, lent a depressing undertone to the remainder of her time on the show, Tamra's aimless son is a reminder of the downside of raising kids with money, and Lauri's oldest son got into so much legal trouble that it eventually drove her from the series entirely. Original cast member Jeana is relatively down-to-earth, a likely result of having been in the public eye three decades ago as a Playmate; but Vicki presents herself as a hard-driving businesswoman -- not something to scorn, but not really what this franchise has come to be about either.

4. Atlanta: The real issue here could be simple lack of familiarity, as this group of Housewives has been absent from the screen the longest (though this will change in July) and has only one season to judge them by. While they were quite entertaining, the newest breed has upped the outrageousness ante, and Atlanta will have to work hard to keep pace.

One sign that the producers realize that Atlanta needs help is the decision to replace DeShawn, who was deemed too normal and not willing enough to bare her claws -- fine qualities in a neighbor, but not so much for this franchise. The breakout stars from the first season were probably Kim, who seems addicted to fomenting feuds with the others and who is involved with someone called "Big Poppa"; and NeNe, the most talkative of the bunch, who was last heard from when she was being evicted from her massive house. We can't judge new Housewife Kandi Burruss just yet, though the fact that she is already in showbiz as a singer/songwriter is promising. As for Sheree and Lisa, they're going to need to pick up the pace a bit. If they need any more incentive, Bravo should just hire DeShawn to make random phone calls to them.