Bravo’s “Family Karma”: When Queerness and Cultural Expectations Clash

Family Karma just concluded its fantastic second season, begging the question: When will Bravo finally realize this is the best show in its current lineup?! It deserves not just another season but a much larger episode order than the first two — plus reunions. I’ll probably be shouting about this for the foreseeable future.

The reality series follows a group of Indian families in the Miami area, focusing on both the older generation of immigrant parents as well as their adult children. With truly excellent editing, an ocean of drama, and genuinely compelling relationship arcs and familial narratives, it’s perfect reality television.

It’s an Indian soap opera come to life. Sure, we might not get secret evil twin storylines, but there is an evil future-mother-in-law (I’m slightly exaggerating, Lopa Auntie, don’t come for me!). There are engagements and un-engagements and re-engagements?! Bali, a sort of bridge between the younger generation and the aunties as a young divorced mom, is a masterful gossip, and she takes her over-the-top looks to a whole new level in season two’s testimonials. She’s the comedic relief and the provider of looks. She’s on everyone’s side, which kind of makes her on no one’s side? All friend groups and television shows should have a Bali.

The drama and twists are abundant. Much of the first season is spent on a will-they/won’t-they arc between Brian Benni (a reformed player with a heart of gold) and good girl Monica Vaswani. When season two started airing earlier this summer, it’s revealed Brian IS dating Monica…but it’s a different Monica. New Monica KNOWS original Monica and used to do pageants with her when they were younger?! Scripted television could never! Original Monica also has an ongoing feud with Anisha Ramakrishna, the show’s resident quippy romcom character looking for love. That feud came to an unexpected head during the post-finale episode of Watch What Happens Live on Wednesday night, when Monica straight up accused Anisha of being jealous of Monica’s close relationship with Anisha’s mother. Reader, I gasped so loudly I scared the dog.

Indeed, a big part of the appeal of this show is the deep well of history between all the characters. Too many Bravo shows somewhat haphazardly cobble together a group of people who, sure, might run in the same social circles or even be actual friends but aren’t really deeply embedded in each other’s lives outside of the context of the show. On other shows, we often watch the group dynamics build and shift. On Family Karma, the group dynamics are very much in place already. Each family unit has its own storylines and stakes, but the families also bleed into each other with deep connections that go back many years. This is a real, tight-knit community, and that means the drama is organic, intense, and oh so juicy. The aunties get together for regular happy hours that often turn into gossip sessions. When there’s drama between the kids, there’s drama between the parents, and vice versa. But at the end of the day, everyone also has immense love and respect for one another.

The producers are also very present on Family Karma, a departure from other Bravo shows, which prefer to keep that fourth wall pretty firmly in place. During testimonials, we get to hear the producers’ questions a lot of the time, and let me tell ya, these producers are asking the good questions. The testimonials are also often done in groups, which adds to the familial/communal vibe of the show. I know these are famous last words, because reality shows seem to change people, but for right now, it doesn’t feel like most of these castmembers are really trying to be full-time reality stars. Of course situations still end up heightened and produced, but there’s a genuine documentary vibe to the show. These families and friendships feel very real, and it makes all the storylines genuinely riveting.

One of this season’s central storylines features a gay wedding proposal. It has been both difficult and so important for me to watch this narrative unfold as a half-Indian lesbian who would like to get married one day but also doesn’t know how that will look when it comes to telling and inviting certain relatives. Early on this season, Amrit Kapai decides to propose to his longtime boyfriend Nicholas. He has been out to his parents, Suresh and Lavina, since his twenties. It sounds like that was its own painful and complicated journey in the past, but his parents have since come to be accepting of his queerness and relationship with Nicholas. But when he tells them he’s thinking about proposing, Lavina regresses a bit. She doesn’t react the same way she did when his brother announced his own engagement to a woman. It’s tough to watch.

Most reality shows don’t really feature moments where people possess self-awareness—to put it lightly. Yet here, Lavina recognizes, acknowledges, and tries to work through her feelings in a productive and meaningful way. This culminates with a strikingly honest scene between her and Suresh in a parked car. It’s simultaneously sad and hopeful, a sentiment Amrit echoes when he later comes out to his grandmother. He says being gay and coming out will always feel both happy and like a disappointment. Whew.

Amrit’s coming out scene with Nani is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television, full stop. I obviously have a personal connection to a lot of the emotions dealt with here—to the point where I’m not quite ready to write about it extensively. But I’m also just amazed by the depth, empathy, and complexity with which this scene and Amrit’s relationships within his family are treated with. This is reality. And it never once feels sensationalized or oversimplified. It’s hopeful and somber all at once, such a stark look at when queerness and cultural expectations clash. So often, Family Karma cracks me up. This storyline cracks me open. Believe me when I say this show has the range.

The first season is available on Peacock.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 305 articles for us.

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