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On 'The Real Housewives', The Villains Are Real

What happens when the villains of our reality shows stop being semi-fictional characters engineered for good TV and start getting real?

"So now I'm the doggone villain," Phaedra Parks whispered to her soon-to-be-former friend Porsha Williams at the Real Housewives of Atlanta reunion, after she'd been outed for fabricating a lie about fellow castmate Kandi Burruss and her husband Todd Tucker that claimed they attempted to drug Williams and lure her back to their home to rape her. There has been a myriad of lies and exposed schemes on the Real Housewives franchise over the years — Brooks Ayers faked cancer on Orange County, Teresa and Joe Giudice were famously sentenced to (and served time in) prison for fraud charges on New Jersey, Michaele and Tareq Salahi breached White House security and crashed a state dinner on D.C. — but none were quite as frightening as last night’s. A true villain was born on the Bravo franchise, and she wasn't here for laughs.

It's funny to remember that The Real Housewives of Orange County first began as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Desperate Housewives, The O.C., and MTV's reality show Laguna Beach. On Orange County, five women were filmed as they interacted with one another and juggled their personal and professional lives for millions of viewers. The show was an immediate success, and soon morphed into a phenomenon of its own, with another nine sets of housewives set in different cities (not to mention the spin-offs and international installments). But the central conceit of the show remains the same: rich women interacting with one another — especially women they dislike — and showing off their lavish lifestyles.

For the most part, things are played for laughs. It is a reality show, after all. Women have shouting matches with one another but after a quick, mid-party “Can I talk to you for a minute?” there is a brief and tense peace in which the women can forgive, forget, and go shopping the next day. But slowly, as the women became more self-aware — as all reality show stars eventually do — the franchise turned into something else entirely. At this point, the different Housewives iterations are no longer "reality shows" as we know them; they're documentaries. I'm not joking. For women who have become famous due to the show (Bethenny Frankel), joined when they were already famous in their own right (Lisa Rinna), or suffered horrific trauma documented onscreen (Taylor Armstrong's domestic abuse that led to her husband Russell's mid-season suicide), the shows have become something like a docu-soap, chronicling their lives as they put their personal drama on display for even more fame. There's no need to cook up fake drama for the cameras most of the time, because the women's lives have become inherently dramatic.

Reality television as we know it became irrevocably warped last fall, when a former reality TV personality became our 45th president. The creation of a madman was documented on camera for several years, and rewatching it now, knowing what we know about Trump, it doesn't seem like his actions were "just for the cameras." On The Apprentice, you can read into Trump's dismissive attitude toward women in the workplace, gross misogynistic language, and racial profiling (he even wanted a season in which he could pit black contestants against white contestants) and see a through line to a man who would go on to brag about "grabbing [women] by the pussy."

Was it even reality television when this season of Real Housewives of New York ran through the entire 2016 election, replaying it for viewers like an oncoming collision we can't stop? Using former journalist Carole Radziwill as a Hillary Clinton–supporting protagonist, the show forced us to watch as she campaigned for Clinton and planned an election night victory party in vain, knowing all too well that her heart (and ours, once again) would be crushed. When Trump is long gone from the Apprentice franchise but still a foreboding, omnipresent specter in another popular reality television show, at what point do we stop pretending these shows aren't mirror images of the lives that we lead? With social media allowing us ability to control our own brands and images with little more than our phones, when you can share a funny story online and go viral or be written up in a BuzzFeed article, aren't we the same as the women on Real Housewives, simply managing our images for public consumption?

Maybe that's what was so deeply chilling about last night's episode of Atlanta. As a villain, Parks was sinister and calculating. She used her friend as a pawn to get revenge on Burruss and Tucker for aligning with her ex-husband, Apollo Nida, when he went to prison. Rather than engage in petty television antics, she cooked up a lie that Burruss and Tucker tried to rape another cast member. It was horrifying to watch Parks as her lies unfolded at the reunion: She didn't react at all to the news, instead merely sitting quietly while others spoke or moving into her dressing room to get her make-up retouched.

After the reveal, Cohen gathered everyone back on the couches and confronted Parks about her lies, giving her a chance to explain herself. Beau Willimon couldn't dream of a character like this while penning House of Cards. This moment has been coming since 2010, when a pregnant Parks told her first unnecessary lie about her pregnancy due date, only for cast member Kim Zolciak to reveal she used to be a nurse and demand receipts from Phaedra. (Are you kidding me? Shakespeare could never.) Parks did not own up to her lies on the reunion, however, and the show ended with her giving a cold shoulder to the women as they celebrated fellow cast member Cynthia Bailey's birthday. Rumors have swirled that Parks has been let go from the show, giving the show that dark Hollywood ending it craves. But just like Radziwill's hope for a Clinton election win, Parks exists in real life. She was given a spotlight by Real Housewives, but she will continue to be the same monster when the cameras stop rolling. Who's to say that her further actions off the show might not impact it somehow, with cast members forced to utter her name aloud even if they wish they were actually on Desperate Housewives and so the writers could simply never mention Parks again. I mean, Parks was Bobby Brown's fucking lawyer. If you think she'll fade away after leaving Real Housewives, you're kidding yourself. We can choose to turn off the television, but now that reality is so entrenched in our real lives, last night's drama is today's headline news.