‘The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’ Is Must-Watch TV
Would you like to feel alive? Would you like to feel the blood simmer in your veins, and every synapse in your brain light up like Clark Griswold’s house on Christmas Day? Would you care to fill your body with sweet, sweet serotonin, and flood your Twitter drafts with exclamation points?
Then might I recommend the first two minutes of the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City Season 2 premiere: 120 seconds of pure chaos wherein FBI agents, Homeland Security agents, and local police descend upon a party bus idling in the Beauty Lab + Laser parking lot in order to arrest Jen Shah for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, moments after she’s been alerted by her husband and subsequently whisked away in an honest-to-god getaway car by her third assistant, Murilo.
One day, when David Fincher inevitably resurrects Mindhunter for a third season and centers it on the development of the FBI’s Housewives Crime Unit, this RHOSLC moment will be the fulcrum upon which his narrative turns. Yes, the Giudices of New Jersey and their pupu platter of fraud came first, and yes, we’re currently watching the many (alleged) misdeeds of Erika Jayne and Tom Girardi play out in headlines on Season 11 of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But never before have the Bravo cameras been rolling when the law came calling. Never before have we been privy to the tiny details of the moment a Housewife realizes she’s been caught—an FBI agent standing mere feet from a “shot ski” as they announce a warrant, or the lonely bag of treat-yourself Cheetos that lays open but untouched in the not-so-party bus while Jen’s coworkers/friends begin reading about what the police says is her years-long money laundering scheme.
Because never before has there been a Housewives franchise like Salt Lake City.
Tucked away in the precise rectangular borders of the Rocky Mountain West and buried under a fresh coat of powder and a pile of Chanel puffer jackets are some of the most chaotic women you will ever rest your eyes upon. Although rest might be the wrong word; there is nothing relaxing about taking in the cast of RHOSLC. If your eyes aren’t bulging as a woman “gets her knees done” at a med-spa, Mary Cosby’s eyes are as she blames another woman’s double leg amputation on not drinking enough water. But as RHOSLC, Bravo’s 10th iteration of the Housewives franchise, concluded its debut season in February and our eyes settled comfortably back into our skulls, longtime Bravo fans also recognized that this was a group of women who, while not exactly subverting the Housewives genre (and who would want that?), managed to elevate it to a new level by adding a little more culture to its ever-present clash.
As the reality TV landscape grows more vast with each passing year, people can pick their reality poison in accordance with their own interests: romance, fashion, competition, cooking, pure chaos, the rise and fall of the Instagram ecosystem over on Bachelor in Paradise. People who don’t define the days of the week by which Bravo show is airing that night (I won’t tell you what my Below Deck Med Monday tradition is, but rest assured that I have one) might assume that audiences watch The Real Housewives to gawk at extreme wealth, or to follow the lies and betrayals of a live-action soap opera. And that’s definitely part of it! But a larger part of the intrigue is more akin to the thrill that comes with watching live sports; except on Housewives, we’re watching humans operate at the peak heights of human behavior, rather than the peak heights of human physicality. And in The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Bravo has not only found its Michael Phelps—it’s found multiple Phelpses.
From the moment Jen Shah arrived in Season 1, it seemed as though she had been assembled in a lab to become the most tumultuous Housewife ever documented. At times, Jen jeopardized her long term Housewives career by operating at too much of a peak. She stormed out of every group dinner, screamed at every single one of her coworkers, and chucked a glass into the great wild ether of a Top Golf (more on that later). In these moments, it felt like watching a show about aliens because the behavior was so outlandish. But in other moments, like when Heather Gay beat herself up over her broken marriage, or when Whitney Rose mustered the emotional strength again and again to support her father as he experienced addiction, actual reality came colliding with the Housewives’ reality (which just so happens to include multiple excommunications from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Underneath the chaos was legitimately moving pathos that only heightened the viewing experience.
For anyone who appreciates strange, surreal, groundbreaking television, RHOSLC is a must-watch, and its second season just premiered on Sunday. It is the appointment viewing of the fall TV season. And because I consider convincing anyone with a Wi-Fi connection to catch up my own personal form of service journalism, here is every single reason it’s time to start watching The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. I recount these moments of absurdity, outrage, and occasional poignancy in the hopes that you won’t shrink away in fear of the unknown, but rather rise to the occasion of helping me hunt for clues as to which one of Jen’s coworkers may have ratted her out to the FBI. (As you’ll see, it really could be any one of them.)
Religion? It’s on the Table.
If the fifth Sex and the City gal was New York City herself, then the looming specter of the Mormon church is surely the seventh Salt Lake City Housewife. Despite distancing from the church following her divorce, Heather still describes herself with the anxiety-inducing phrase “purebred, pedigreed, pioneer Mormon.” Her ancestors came across the plains as pioneers, and then she married into an even more pedigreed Mormon family, the Gays. As Heather tells it, her husband’s grandfather became Howard Hughes’s driver, and when Hughes died, he willed a huge portion of his estate to the driver because he “loved the Mormons.” Thus, the Gays became billionaires. Not to be outdone in completely outrageous ancestry, Whitney tells us that her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Shadrach Roundy, was the bodyguard to Joseph Smith, a.k.a. the prophet of the Latter-day Saints. Of course, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob … but maybe Shadrach was off duty that day.
Before RHOSLC, the extent of my knowledge about the Latter-Day Saints came almost entirely from an unspeakable number of rewatches of Andrew Rannells singing “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon at the 2011 Tonys. After watching RHOSLC, I perhaps know even less about the ins and outs of being a practicing Mormon. Because, despite all the aforementioned Mormon roots, Lisa Barlow—“Jewish by heritage, Mormon by choice”—is our only proud and practicing LDS cast member, and probably the closest thing we’ve got to a perfection-projecting Mormon mommy blogger. Still, Lisa is honest about how she makes Mormonism work for her, and not the other way around: “I’m sure other Mormons might care that I own a tequila company,” Lisa barks in her New York City accent. “What’s important is that I don’t.”
Lisa may have an easier time maintaining her more open-minded “Mormon 2.0” mindset precisely because she didn’t grow up “under the Mormon culture thumb,” as Heather and Whitney did, where the actions and expectations of Mormon women are painted in black and white. Does Lisa treat Mormon doctrine a little like she’s ordering a Chipotle bowl, opting into their ideas about achieving perfection and out of their restrictions on alcohol? Sure, she does. And I dare anyone to try to tell Lisa Barlow that she’s not allowed to do something.
I still don’t fully understand why Heather is shunned for getting a divorce, while Lisa can proudly own a tequila company, but my guess is that it’s all a matter of perspective. Lisa wants to be a part of the Latter-day Saint faith, and as Heather tearfully tells her daughters in what she calls “a coming out,” she’s pretty sure she does not. It really is like Heather says in her totally normal, not at all absurd Season 1 tagline: “Just like my pioneer ancestors, I’m trying to blaze a new trail.” It just so happens to be the opposite trail of her ancestors. Also, she’s a lot less likely to get cholera.
Mary Cosby: The First Lady of Delusion
Every single thing about Mary Cosby, the “first lady” of a Pentecostal church dynasty in Salt Lake City, is fascinating. From the fact that she has perhaps the most extensive designer collection in all of Housewives history and yet consistently looks like she has coated herself in honey and walked through the clearance section of a Marshalls to the way that she always physically looks on the verge of just collapsing to the ground like Woody from Toy Story when he sees a human, the woman is a lot to take on. But of course, the most fascinating thing about Mary is—well, actually, why don’t I let Mary explain it to you herself? “The reality is that I am married to my grandmother’s second husband,” Mary says in one of her first testimonials. “Before my grandmother passed, she made it very clear that she wanted me to be the one to take her place in the church and inherit everything—that came with homes, money, her church, and also marrying her husband.” Sure! Because nothing normalizes marrying your step-grandpa like the marriage being stipulated by your grandmother from beyond the grave.
Now, I consider myself a Housewives purist; that means no blogs, no Reddit—only episodic canon will touch these eyes. And yet, the allure of the rumors about Mary’s church—that the marriage between her and Robert Sr. was never stipulated at all; that maybe there never even was a will; that, at 22 years old, Mary and Robert Sr. wrestled every ounce of money and power away from the rest of her family following her grandmother’s death; that she now she has homes she never visits, and bedrooms she uses solely as closets—were just too strong. I have to admit that I’ve dabbled. But even ignoring the extracurriculars, you can still take Mary as she says she is: a woman who married her step-grandfather.
Jen Shah: The Instigator
Jen Shah has a beautiful house, two lovely sons, a seemingly sweet husband, one-of-a-kind boobs (because her plastic surgeon retired), and the personality of a tornado that got stung by a hornet. She constantly insists that she is the most loyal friend anyone could have while gossiping about her friends’ marriages and screaming at them about who they should and should not associate with. And though her prolific angry outbursts became intolerable about two-thirds of the way through Season 1, Jen’s true inability to control her emotions, especially if one drop of tequila has touched her lips, is the main catalyst for most of the season’s drama.
When Jen hosts a birthday party for Meredith in the Season 1 premiere, we find out that she invited Mary with some trepidation because, apparently, Mary had recently done something to hurt her feelings. When they sit down to discuss the affront, with Mary dressed like a Limited Edition Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake, it is revealed that, a few weeks prior, Jen showed up to a group dinner after visiting her aunt in the hospital before her double leg amputation surgery, and after she arrived, Mary said that Jen “smelled like hospital.” For the record, Mary is not British, but I cannot reiterate enough how important the lack of article is in Mary’s phrasing immediately going down in Housewives history.
At first, Mary tries to avoid admitting that she said it, but when Jen brings over the exact woman who Mary most definitely said it to, Mary snaps: “I did say it—I sure did say it, and so what about it?” She then explains that she has a very dark association with the smell of hospitals because she once spent 30 days at the hospital after nearly dying twice on the operating table while having her—[checks notes]—odor glands removed.
“My aunt was having both of her legs amputated,” Jen reminds Mary in monotone.
Somehow, Mary takes these pleas for more sensitivity as Jen … blaming her for the aunt’s leg amputation? “I don’t know what you want me to do about your aunt, her legs are gone!” Mary cries out in her testimonial, genuinely distressed at not being able to figure out what on earth she’s done wrong. And she just can’t stop herself: “Why are you getting your legs cut off at 60 … She didn’t eat right! Like, drink water!” (Mary ultimately has a lot of thoughts on water as it relates to health; later in the season she tells an unsuspecting waitress that “carbonation hurts your ovaries.”)
Jen storms off, slams her bedroom door, and in a climax it took us an entire season to get to on New Jersey, screams, “Bitch, don’t fucking disrespect my fucking FAMILY!”
Mary’s Cocktail-Attire Met Gala Luncheon
Mary eventually apologizes for hurting Jen, but after they’ve made up, Jen gets drunk and screams at Meredith for choosing “Mary, who fucked her grandfather” over her, and now Mary is the one who’s hurt.
So what better way to make amends than with an extravagant Met Gala–themed luncheon at high noon on a Tuesday? The Met Gala’s theme changes every year, so to choose it as a theme is a little confusing. Mostly, the theme is just “Mary’s interpretation of fancy,” and boy, is that interpretation worth exploring. There are Beefeater guards outside the restaurant to valet the women’s cars, and a red carpet leading to the door; once inside, there’s a table set with a giant betta fish aquarium at each chair, a personalized leather journal and pen for each guest, and, of course, Louis Vuitton AirPods as a party favor. Mary explains each detail of her own fanciness with glee, but never is she more elated than when she explains what the women are drinking, which journalism dictates I quote to you in full:
“You guys are drinking 2003 Dom Pérignon. In 2003, it was a heat wave. Fifty-six hundred people died, and it made the best grapes of all time.”
But even the magnetic pull of natural disaster wine cannot keep this luncheon on track, and eventually Jen and Mary start arguing over who was meanest to whom between Mary saying Jen smelled like hospital and Jen screaming that Mary fucked her grandpa during a flapper party. (Hilariously, Mary keeps misquoting Jen’s insult as calling her a “grandpa m-effer” which actually adds an entire, even more disturbing familial element to her marriage.) When things continue to escalate, Mary cries out for a ceasefire, pleading that she doesn’t want to upset the elderly restaurant owner:
Valter is very upset right now!!!
If you can believe it, Jen is ultimately not assuaged by Mary’s pleas to respect Valter’s delicate sensibilities, and leaves her third party in as many episodes screaming about loyalty.
Jen Takes a Tumble
The amount of entertainment that can be gleaned from Jen in Season 1 has ultimately been made much less fun considering that she was not only screaming at her friends about how they need to be nicer to her, but also (reportedly) calling vulnerable people and telling them that their vehicle’s manufacturer warranty had expired in order to scam their money.
Still, I’ve never seen anything quite like Jen falling head-first off a bar, crashing to the ground, and then just sort of … restacking her spine one vertebrae at a time while laughing, like one of the women in Death Becomes Her.
The woman chills me to my core.
Whitney Rose: Pure of Heart
Perhaps the opposite of Jen is Whitney: heart of gold, hair of gold, boobs like golden orbs, and … a brain that comes to a screeching halt every time she attempts any form of confrontation (and confrontation is kind of a staple of the Housewives franchise).
But I love Whitney, I do! She is a rare blend of hard and soft: strong enough to be the rock for her father as he battles addiction, but with a voice like a tea kettle ready to pop; skin so dewy you could apply your mascara in its reflection, a blonde bob so abrupt you could cut your steak with it. Everything you need to know about Whitney and her sometimes spacy state of mind is right there in her Housewives tagline, which she says without a lick of irony: “This rose isn’t scared to handle a little prick.” Also, here’s Whitney pole dancing in front of her dad (whose helmet of pitch-black hair, which is somehow not a wig but may be dyed with printer toner, is also a central reason to watch this show) at the reception for her vow renewal:
Whitney Rose: Also Drunk
Unfortunately, when Whitney’s extreme earnestness meets nervous drinking, an already awkward communication style becomes almost indecipherable. And after hearing from Mary that Lisa and Meredith had told her they’re scared to tell Jen they don’t agree with her behavior, Whitney decides it’s her duty as a girlfriend to report that information to Jen … at Jen’s husband’s birthday party. Whitney is sure this is a good idea.
Unfortunately, she’s so nervous that she drinks 10 glasses of wine and chokes so hard on her speech to Jen that she has to start over and then deliver the exact same speech. Jen seems to hardly care that Lisa and Meredith might be scared of her, but she is furious that Whitney won’t stop talking about Mary …
And thus, the aforementioned glass finally meets the atmosphere of the aforementioned Top Golf.
Heather Gay: The People’s Housewife
But for every outburst from Jen Shah, there is a kind, overly empathetic and understanding reaction from Heather Gay, a mother of three healing in real time from her divorce and somewhat unintentional separation from the Mormon church. I think everyone fell in love with Heather at a different moment, whether it be wrestling with her faith, fretting over being a good example for her daughters, or snagging the hottest guy at the party and taking him home in two minutes flat. But for me, it was this:
As Heather goes to chase Jen outside after she’s blown up the flapper party, she briefly pauses, turns around, and instructs her table to guard with their lives the burger and the lollipop drumsticks that just arrived. I mean, has there ever been a more relatable Housewife?
Later on, when Heather takes way too much of the blame for causing Jen’s blowup at a birthday party, she emotionally admits that she’s terrified of disagreeing with Jen—not because she’s scared of her, but because she’s scared of losing her, because Heather learned in her marriage that going against what’s expected of you results in being abandoned. To actually see a Housewife cop to her insecurities and be vulnerable enough to attempt to work through them was, frankly, a level of emotional aspiration I’m not used to associating with this franchise.
Lisa “I Love That” Barlow
Lisa is the perfect Housewives antihero because her arrogance is only a threat to herself. She’s genuinely quick to forgive because the only thing she cares deeply about is herself, her family, and her tequila brand (not in that order, as we’ll come to find out). Lisa’s one-liners are nothing short of iconic, starting with one of the best Housewives taglines in recent memory: “When you take cheap shots, always expect a hangover.” And Lisa talks so fast that she truly must be thinking of most of these lines on the spot; for example, when Whitney gives her some fearless feedback about the tequila Lisa gifted for her vow renewal, Lisa spouts off in her testimonial: “If I give you a Chanel necklace, and you choke on it, that’s your problem.”
But there are two Lisa Barlow moments that will haunt me for life (other than her asking, “Can I touch?” over and over at a fine art gallery) …
The Barlows’ Progressive Fast Food Dinner
Lisa Barlow is never not calling out for a Diet Coke from Sonic, a habit we’re introduced to in the series premiere when we watch the entire Barlow family drive their Porsche from Sonic to Taco Bell to a Crumbl Cookies to Wendy’s, gathering up items at each place for an individualized fast food feast for each family member. “We’re not traditional parents,” Lisa says in her testimonial. “I don’t cook, I don’t make them breakfast … and I’m not gonna change for anybody else—I like the way I am.”
So what does Lisa like to do for her children? Well …
At one point in the season, Lisa and her husband/business partner, John, go to dinner, where he gently floats the idea of revising their priorities, which have always been: work first, kids second, marriage third, and if there’s time left over (there is not), fun. Now, openly stating that you prioritize work over your children is a pretty bold move. But an even bolder move is Lisa’s suggestion for how they might prioritize their children more: they should start a business with them!
And would you believe it, all on their own, 16-year-old Jack and 8-year-old Henry came up with the idea for a men’s grooming line called—wait for it—Fresh Wolf.
Is Henry a tiny child with a completely buzzed head? Yes, he is. Does he have hard-and-fast opinions on men’s grooming? No, he of course does not. He is a child. But Lisa is his mother, and you better believe there is a user-friendly Fresh Wolf website up and running, with Jack and Henry’s gleaming faces front and center, and wholesale opportunities in the Menu bar.
A Final Note on Mary
In the back half of Season 1, Mary inexplicably gets trapped in her closet. There’s no other way of putting it. Of course, Mary’s closet is pretty much her entire 20,000-square-foot house because, as Whitney says when she lays eyes on Mary’s closet/bedroom, Mary might be a high-end hoarder.
But still. Even if it was rumored that Mary was originally intended to be a “Friend Of” until the production team realized the goldmine they had on their hands, there’s still no explaining why Mary exclusively FaceTimes the women from her closet for the final five episodes of Season 1. But it does allow us a thorough look into Mary’s home, which I would say looks kind of like a fancy funeral home, and consists mostly of giant tufted chairs made for the Slenderman.
These house visits also introduce us to the mysterious world of Mary’s “tray:” a tray featuring two individually saran-wrapped bowls and two ambiguous liquids that Mary receives each morning from her housekeeper Charlinda, who also happens to be her second cousin. Mary never explains what’s in those bowls, but she does explain the dynamics of her relationship with Charlinda: “We’re not close at all. Like, I don’t know her life and what she does outside of what she helps me with … but at the end of the day, we’re family.” Take that, Olive Garden!
“You Guys, What If She’s on the Run?!”
Between all of the aforementioned chaos, Season 1 of RHOSLC felt a little like capturing lightning in a bottle, and there was some concern from fans about a sophomore slump. But what if I told you something more outrageous was waiting for us in the premiere of Season 2? What if I told you that the lightning escaped the bottle, ran a national telemarketing fraud scheme, and was then chased down by the FBI while the Bravo cameras were rolling?
To quote Sutton Stracke of RHOBH, “[She] made a deal with the devil—and the devil always comes knocking.” But what Sutton failed to mention is that sometimes the devil has to loiter in the “15 Minute Botox Parking” at Beauty Lab + Laser for a little while first.
The first two minutes of the Season 2 premiere are more or less a flashforward of what’s to come. But from Jen innocently taking a call from Sharrieff, to calmly exiting the party bus with no more than an “I have some bad news,” to the gals being asked what they know, when they knew it, and whether they have anything to do with the Feds arriving on Jen’s doorstep—it is riveting stuff.
And, hey, if all else fails, we already know from the premiere that Mary Cosby—a woman who has never finished one sentence before starting the next—has started a podcast. So you better believe that RHOSLC is going to deliver no matter what.
Jodi Walker is a freelance pop culture writer with bylines in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, and Texas Monthly. She writes about The Bachelor franchise at absurd length in her newsletter, These Are The Best Things.