Last season, VH1's Basketball Wives franchise documented a sustained nadir in humanity, and a peak of the kind of extreme human behavior that viewers ostensibly sign up for when they tune in to watch a bunch of women who have been hired to argue with each other do so. Tami Roman eviscerated a woman for coughing. Evelyn Lozada and Suzie Ketcham hid dead fish around another castmate's hotel room. Lozada attempted to physically attack former BFF Jennifer Williams by climbing over a table.
The show's ratings remained consistent (for a few seasons now, viewership for the show's premieres has hovered around the two million mark), but the outcry over the show's portrayal of women of color has amplified, with the likes of Star Jones calling for a boycott. Seemingly responding to the pressure, co-creator/executive producer/star/Shaq's ex Shaunie O'Neal pledged last June on the Season Four reunion that future installments would find the Basketball Wives turning over a new leaf. "We are going to do our best moving forward to show you some better content, some more positive, intelligent women that, you know, we got our act together," she said.
Season Five premiered last night on VH1 and while saying the "content" is now "better" would be a stretch, it sure is different and "more positive." Gone are the scapegoats: Jennifer Williams, Royce Reed, Kenya Bell, and Kesha Nichols (the first two were on the show since the first season; the other two joined later). What's left is a core group whose members have largely remained harmonious amongst each other—O'Neal, Lozada, Roman, and Ketcham.
But just because these particular women didn't spend last night's episode squabbling, it doesn't mean the show was conflict-free. It just outsourced the drama to an offscreen effigy, focusing on Lozada's months-long marriage to Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson, which ended after he head-butted her during a dispute regarding his cheating. Lozada cried a lot about this during the hour-long show: to her mom, to her publicist, to her interviewer, to her on-screen girlfriends.
Hate-watchers tuning in for the thrill of having their stomach turned by human monsters were given little in the way of drama castor oil, though Roman suggesting Lozada follow in the footsteps of Rihanna and Chris Brown and give Johnson a second chance is enough to make even the most ironclad-stomach owner throw up in his or her mouth a little bit. That's in the clip below. Have fun.
The seeming commitment to O'Neal's promise to clean up the show's act is impressive and rare in the world of reality TV. Basketball Wives didn't have to go this route—it could have easily have staged another one of those season-premiere dinners that inevitably ends in epithets and cocked fists. It's not like anyone has a memory anymore, anyway.
The season preview that followed the premiere episode suggests that Basketball Wives will retain some of its definitive bickering, though it seems at the very least less frequent and less vitriolic. But if in fact this will be the promised kinder, gentler version of Basketball Wives, everyone will have to work extremely hard to make it somehow worth watching. Taking away reality stars' ability to say whatever the fuck to whomever the fuck is like barring wrestlers from making physical contact: It revises their existence, to the point of seemingly leaving them without a purpose. It assumes that the people who were hired to serve a function (fighting) are interesting beyond their serving of that function, and over the course of four full seasons, there hasn't been much to evidence to suggest that they are. With the details of Lozada's failed relationship thoroughly examined within our first episode, what will provide the lurid pulp that viewers crave? Surely not solidarity and kindness.
At best, the show will have to innovate a new way of portraying groups of women sitting around on reality TV. Good luck with that. At worst, each week will be like hanging out with a bunch of former party friends whose newfound sobriety is good for them, but also a reminder of how little you had in common, in the first place.