I Still Can’t Believe is a TV Team series where we remember the things happened on television that baffle us — in good and bad ways — to this very day.
One summer, I stopped writing. Well, technically I was still writing, because writing is my job. But I wasn’t doing any creative writing. For years, I’d been the kind of person who worked on several creative projects at a time. Multiple pilots, various screenplays, plays, short stories. And then I was hit with what some might call an extreme bout of writer’s block, but it was more complicated than that. I had ideas. I just didn’t want to do anything with them. I pushed them away. It didn’t even feel gradual. It was like I’d flipped some sort of switch. I felt broken, but I also didn’t want to fix it.
So I wasn’t writing anything. Instead, I filled my days with another activity: watching all nine seasons of Real Housewives Of New York.
In the time since then, I’ve gone from a casual viewer to a full-on Bravo Dyke, a term I am desperately trying to make happen. My girlfriend and I organize whole evenings around catching up with our best friends, the absurdly rich and richly absurd women of the various Real Housewives franchises. I’m in multiple group chats across multiple platforms with friends to specifically discuss the latest episodes. But the summer I stopped writing and started obsessively watching RHONY, it was a solitary experience. My ex hated reality television. I watched alone, often on my iPad in bed. It wasn’t some shameful secret or guilty pleasure — I’ve never really believed in feeling guilty for things that give you pleasure. But in the beginning, RHONY was a true emotional escape for me. I didn’t want to think about some of the recent changes in my life or actively address my depression, so I fixated on these chaotic bitches.
RHONY has been on so long now (thirteen seasons!) it’s basically an epic. Housewives have come and gone (except for Ramona Singer, the only cast member who has been in every single season and who might be immortal?); singles have dropped; trips have gone awry; there have been engagements, divorces, book deals, arrests, drunk fights, sober fights. Some seasons have more compelling drama than others. Sometimes the messiness of these women is difficult to watch. But across over a decade of their pinot grigio-soaked escapades, season three of RHONY will always be my favorite. Its main storyline — the dissolution of Bethenny Frankel and Jill Zarin’s friendship — is the best depiction of a friendship breakup I’ve ever seen on TV.
In case you don’t live and breathe Bravo, here’s the rundown of what happened with Bethenny and Jill. A lot of times on these shows, the friendships are tenuous, more like work friendships than real relationships. Jill and Bethenny though had a legitimate friendship outside of the context of the show, and you can tell. They act like real friends. In fact, they act almost like family. But something’s off at the start of the third season. Bethenny’s dating someone new, and Jill’s telling anyone who will listen she’s done with Bethenny because of a voicemail Bethenny left her telling her to get a hobby. Jill’s also mad Bethenny didn’t call when Jill’s husband Bobby was in the hospital for cancer treatments. She thinks Bethenny is only concerned about her brand and herself. Bethenny thinks Jill has a complex where she needs to take care of people and feel needed.
Jill and Bethenny don’t share any scenes in the premiere, and it’s clear right away they’re on different pages. Jill seems genuinely hurt by Bethenny but also stubborn and immature. Instead of attempting to repair anything, she’s just shit talking. Bethenny, meanwhile, knows something’s off between her and Jill but doesn’t realize quite how bad it is. She tells her new boyfriend Jason it’s just a small bit of drama, something that will probably pass.
It does not pass. Bethenny and Jill have an uncomfortable interaction at a fashion show. Bethenny becomes convinced Jill planted a gossip story about a rift between them. Other housewives start taking sides but also seem confused by the magnitude of this fight. In “Hot Off The Press,” the fifth episode of the season, Bethenny is determined to squash it. She calls up Jill, who initially seems like she’s sort of having fun messing with Bethenny but who quickly realizes this is serious. Here’s how the phone call starts:
Bethenny: In light of the disproportionate nature of this argument now compared to actually what originally happened, I think that we should sit down and have a conversation about it.
Jill: What does disproportionate mean?
Bethenny: Disproportionate means, it’s out of proportion. What originally happened with you and I was an email and a conversation and now it’s like a massive argument where other people are involved, where the press is involved. I haven’t told a single person about this argument, and now it’s enormous. I didn’t realize that Luann had heard my voice message from this summer, which you kept for two months and played for someone else. Like, that’s disproportionate. No one killed anyone. No one slept with anybody’s husband. Nothing enormous happened, and now it’s enormous, and I’d like to sit down and talk to you about why it’s so enormous.
Jill: I don’t think it’s really important why it’s so enormous.
Bethenny: If it’s not important to you, then that speaks volumes. But I thought that our relationship was much bigger than this. You have blown this so enormously out of proportion. You have told strangers. You have told Perez Hilton. The lengths that you’ve gone to to advertise this argument that wasn’t even anything enormous to begin with is astounding to me.
“Bethenny, we were friends like no other,” Jill goes on to say. “You were my best friend. I spoke to you five times a day.” Then she brings up Bethenny’s mean “hobby” voicemail again and recounts all the ways Bethenny didn’t show up for her over the summer. It’s quickly evident Bethenny didn’t actually know how sick Bobby was, and the more they argue over the phone, the more it seems like this is really just a series of miscommunications that have, indeed, been blown way out of proportion.
Jill cuts the conversation short by literally saying “we’re done” and hanging up. Bethenny’s left alone on the sidewalk, sobbing against a car. I’ve watched this phone call so many times. It’s heightened with classic reality TV aesthetics — a dramatic score, quick cuts between the women, close-ups on their reactions. But flourishes aside, it’s feels fucking real. It’s visceral. The emotional stakes are genuine.
Over the course of the season, Bethenny gets engaged. She gets pregnant. She learns her father who she’s estranged from is dying. And throughout all these major life changes, she doesn’t have her best friend. Then just as Jill starts to come around and realize she wants to be in Bethenny’s life again, Bethenny decides she’s done with Jill for real. Yet again, they’re on different pages. Every time it seems like maybe they’ll be able to work things out, someone says or does the wrong thing, and the fracture in their friendship widens.
Part of what makes Jill’s behaviors at the start of the season seem so calculated and off-putting is easily explained by her eventual confession behind-the-scenes that she heightened the rift between them for the sake of ratings. She essentially thought she was producing a friendship breakup storyline. Her flippant attitude at the start of that explosive phone call makes sense given these motives. But in her wild attempt to make good TV, Jill accidentally made great TV. Because her faked feud turned into a very real one. Her ratings grab ruined a friendship.
Friendship breakups are obviously hard to capture on television. So much television is narratively fueled by friendship. If two characters stop speaking to each other, then how can they exist in the same show? Bethenny and Jill’s friendship breakup is reality TV gold, because it really does feel real, but they also have to confront it on camera, have to process everything in front of an audience. They’re not just friends; they’re also castmates. They can’t take a break from each other, because they have to film together. Their arguments become scenes. Their breakup is a plotline. The simultaneous realism of their friendship breakup and the performance of it is disorienting and makes it all the sadder. As a viewer, I wanted Jill and Bethenny to make up. All the other housewives wanted them to, too. But as someone who has been deeply hurt by friendship breakups at various points in life, I’m almost grateful they never fully resolve things. Because that’s reality. Not all friendships last. And friendship breakups can be just as life-altering as romantic ones. That’s palpably felt in the way Jill and Bethenny’s plays out. At the end of the season, Jill quite literally compares it to death.
There was a reason I stopped writing. It became easier to understand that once I had some distance from it. Not long before I started watching RHONY, a significant friendship of mine changed dramatically. It was far from my first friendship breakup, and it wasn’t even the most dramatic or devastating one. But it was the first time I experienced a friendship breakup that was also connected to my writing. Two women who I had collaborated on a creative project with stopped dating each other, and their breakup fractured our friendship trio as well as our working partnership. We had just begun the process of forming our own small production company. I had just written the second season of our scrappy, DIY queer webseries. Then it all just sort of fell apart. It was difficult to keep the friendships going, too. We grew distant with each other. It became difficult to separate my grief over the sudden end of the webseries from my feelings toward them.
Jill and Bethenny’s friendship breakup is hardly an exact retelling of what happened between me and these two friends. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see why I was so drawn to and affected by season three’s saga. I had so many unprocessed feelings about what had happened with those friends. When revisiting Jill and Bethenny’s arc, it’s tough to see where real life ends and reality TV begins. It feels both real and produced all at once. But it captured so many of the feelings I was actively trying to ignore in my own life: the difficult-to-describe loss, the fantasies about how things might’ve gone differently, the frustrating lack of control, the sad nostalgia.
I stopped writing because I was scared. The (small but meaningful) success of our webseries followed by its abrupt end gave me creative whiplash. It was always in the back of my head, that feeling that putting myself out there in my writing could result in heartbreak again. I stopped trying to repair the friendships because I was scared, too. It felt easier to shut down, to immerse myself in someone else’s drama like, say, the drama of a bunch of wealthy socialites running around on reality television. Eventually, I was able to work through a lot of these feelings and understand the link between my writing dry spell and the end of a significant part of my life.
I could write again. But the friendships were never fully fixed. It became clear that it would never be the same as it was before. And that’s just how it goes sometimes. But just Google “Jill and Bethenny” and you’ll find dozens of articles with headlines like “Are Jill Zarin and Bethenny Frankel Friends?: 2021 Update”; “Jill Zarin reveals if she’d be friends with Bethenny Frankel”; “Jill Zarin Gives Update on Her Friendship With Bethenny”; etc. People want closure. People want to believe that friendships are forever. But Jill and Bethenny are striking examples that sometimes all you can do is wish each other the best and move on.