Spare me your prestige dramas, “Sopranos” re-watches and streaming snobbery. The best thing on television right now is “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
To those who would snicker, you are missing out. Oh, how you are missing out. This is the greatest modern-day morality play since “Breaking Bad,” except it’s all real.
At the heart of this season is one Erika Girardi, stage name Erika Jayne. Her 82-year-old husband, legendary lawyer Tom Girardi, stands accused by the feds of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from clients.
Erika, a 49-year-old mob moll wannabe who never revealed much about her life, suddenly has many stories to tell.
Tom, Erika claims, suddenly had dementia. It was the only way, she said, that he could have executed such a complicated Ponzi scheme.
However, Erika also said Tom’s sudden dementia was actually festering for years, including that time he drove off a cliff, broke his ankle, and called for help even though he was unconscious for 12 hours.
Nobody knows about that, she said, even though that would have been newsworthy.
Sometime later and very recently but Erika’s not sure when — because they’re getting a divorce and not speaking, except Tom calls her every day — Tom, who is also going blind, fought off an intruder and wound up needing eye surgery while her adult son, who is in the LAPD, flipped his car five times while driving through the California snow.
“So yeah,” Erika said in a recent episode. “I’m under a lot of stress.”
This is some of the greatest dialogue ever. It’s also some of the greatest conflict ever, watching the other Housewives decide when to defend Erika or deflect from her lies and when to give up. The low-level conflict is job security, which may be slipping away for certain desperate housewives (looking at you, Lisa Rinna).
The high-level conflict is whether to go against the show’s stars and exhibit actual integrity. This has paid off well for the underdogs, newcomers Sutton Stracke and Garcelle Beauvais.
“Housewives,” in many ways, is “Survivor.” No one eats, but the settings are more glamorous.
On a show where fakery is the premise, obscene wealth and materialism valued above all else, and plastic surgery leaves many of these women literally and metaphorically two-faced, “own it!” and “just be honest!” are the mantras. It’s amazing. You couldn’t script Erika’s dialogue, because no one would believe it. To quote RHONY MVP Bethenny Frankel, you can’t play smart and stupid at the same time. Erika’s a self-proclaimed hustler smart enough, she once said, to pass the bar without going to law school.
So which is it? Your husband of 22 years duped you this whole time? Or you’re getting a divorce to hide assets while helping him claim dementia to avoid prison?
Sure, other housewives have been accused of fraud, and one actually served time, but we’ve never seen a case of this magnitude or a housewife this sociopathic — and that’s saying something. Personality disorders, especially antisocial, are practically a job requirement. Con artists and fraudsters are attracted to this show in disproportionate numbers, and I’m convinced that the FBI has a secret Real Housewives Task Force. In my next life, I would like to be on it.
What’s not in dispute here is that Tom Girardi, most famous for winning the $333 million class action lawsuit known as the Erin Brockovich case, stole from clients including a young burn victim and the surviving family members of the 2018 Lion Air crash.
The most vulnerable people you could imagine, and he charmed them as he stole their money, funneling $20 million into his wife’s quixotic vanity career as a middle-aged sex-bomb singer whose catchphrase is “pat the puss.”
That Tom doesn’t seem sorry is no surprise. He’s a thief and a liar who finally got caught.
But Erika — Erika’s really not sorry. She won’t even pretend to be sorry. How could a Hollywood swamp creature not know better? Kris Jenner’s just a phone call away. It’s the abiding mystery of the season.
Defiance plays well in the Housewives meta-verse, until it doesn’t. Erika’s storyline has torn through social media, Page Six, endless recaps and podcasts and Reddit threads, an ABC News documentary on Hulu, an exposé in the Los Angeles Times that one Housewife declared too long to finish but totally shocking nonetheless, and countless other forums.
No one believes Erika Jayne except maybe Andy Cohen, who only cares about ratings and pop-cultural relevance. But the producers and editors are signaling their complete and utter disbelief, allowing Erika to hang herself in countless testimonials — her hair and make-up decompensating since giving up the $40k-per-month glam squad — while showing a private dinner in which Erika’s stories were mocked by the husbands.
That’s when you know the ground has shifted: The husbands get in the ring.
Over at New York magazine, hundreds of commenters convene after every episode, dismantling Erika’s stories while castigating recapper and EJ loyalist Brian Moylan. It’s the kind of moral outrage that accompanied Watergate.
Yet Erika won’t read the room.
After the scandal broke, she posted a cartoon drawing of herself nearly nude, burning on a cross, wearing earrings that read “widows” and “orphans” — a reference to the Lion Air victims. She more recently Instagrammed near-nudes while calling her followers “gullible.” Rihanna, an infamous RHOBH super fan who tapped Erika as a Savage X Fenty ambassador, quickly dropped her.
Whether Erika is complicit, we may never know. But she’s not horrified that she married a monster. And she definitely, deliberately wore non-waterproof mascara on camera so her tears would look even more dramatic — a crime against reality TV.
“Look at my life!” This is Erika’s favorite on-air lament.
Oh, the woes: She had to give up “the Lambo” (gag). She has to drive a Range Rover. She lives in a tiny house now, just 10,000 square feet in Hancock Park. She can’t afford to heat her pool.
Erika Jayne achieved one thing: her lifelong goal of becoming famous, no matter the cost — whether that meant leaving her 3-year-old son behind to chase sugar daddies and stardom in L.A. or pumping her own gas after shopping at Target.
And so we have the most reviled American figure since Bernie Madoff: a grotesque representation of the COVID-era rich not getting it while the rest of us try to make sense of it all.
Our reward, after Wednesday night’s finale, is an unprecedented four-part reunion. Erika, wouldn’t you know, takes all the credit for that.