• Tue. Sep 28th, 2021

How The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City Is Using Jen Shahs Legal Woes to Craft Irresistible TV

Sep 11, 2021

For “The Real Housewives,” (alleged) crime pays, and viewers will see that phenomenon play out once more on the upcoming season of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” which has its premiere on Bravo Sunday night.

As the newest entry in the “Real Housewives” multiverse, “Salt Lake City” hit the ground running in its first season last year, with its cozy, snowy scenery in wonderful contrast to its combative cast. The show is making the most of what promises to be its central plotline: cast member Jen Shah’s catastrophic legal woes. Earlier this week, perhaps to assure “Real Housewives” viewers of its commitment to this story, Bravo released the opening scene of the episode online.

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The strategy succeeded in stoking the fanbase, who will need to fill the hole left by the current season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which is drawing to a close after nearly four months of riveting television, courtesy of the spectacle of Erika Girardi’s financial and legal miseries. Erika, so careful with her own image, has become human before our eyes because of the immense pressure she’s under due to the forced bankruptcy of her estranged husband, Tom. Erika has wept, she has looked ill, she has hissed threats at her castmates. And with those vicissitudes, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has become a spellbinding “Succession”-like drama with an all-female cast.

And viewers love it. The most recent episode hit a high for the season, with 1.3 million viewers tuning in, and a .4 in the 18 to 49 demographic — and those are just Nielsen’s Live + Same Day ratings (who watches Bravo live?). Considering all the competition for audiences these days, especially in the post-vaccine world, those are stellar numbers: expect them to build as we head toward the finale.

That “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” is also entering the crime genre with Jen Shah is an accident of casting. But the “Real Housewives” franchise has always proven that there is a large intersection between women who want to show off their lives on camera and women whose lives are one inch from falling apart. We’ve seen it time and again, when cast members on the verge of divorce or financial collapse have decided it would be a great idea to be on a reality show.

That bad decision-making has applied to criminal behavior as well. Teresa and Joe Giudice of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” had committed financial crimes for years, creating falsified materials to get loans from banks they never intended to pay back. They were caught, of course, and both of them went to prison, one after the other — all while being filmed. Teresa remains the star of “New Jersey,” and the show continues to revolve around her.

Stealing from banks is one thing; the cases of Erika Girardi and Jen Shah are different. There are real people whose lives have been ruined because of Tom Girardi’s alleged Ponzi scheme — he’s been accused of stealing millions of dollars in settlement money from his powerless clients — and Jen’s telemarketing company that allegedly defrauded elderly people who didn’t know better.

Those tragic stakes ratchet the drama even higher. Especially as the cast members pick sides, scrambling to guess who viewers will be backing by the time the show’s episodes begin to air.

Which brings us to the first two and a half minutes of the premiere of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” It begins by breaking the fourth wall, a technique the “Real Housewives” franchise has effectively used in recent seasons of the franchise — all the better to capture the chaotic times in which we currently live. In the case of “Salt Lake City,” a masked member of the crew enters a party bus, adjusting the stationary cameras. He holds up a clapperboard with the date: March 30, the day of Jen’s arrest. (It was confirmed later that the women were on their way to Colorado, a typically modest “Real Housewives” trip during the pandemic.)

The cast enters the bus one by one, and Jen receives a call from her husband. She says no, they haven’t left yet, as her eyes begin to dart around, catching the camera directly. She lowers the phone, and turns her back to castmate Whitney Rose as she lifts up her shirt to expose her mic pack. “Can you turn this… off?” she murmurs. “Can I what?” Whitney asks in her Utah twang. “Can we turn it off?” Jen repeats under her breath. The anticipatory accessories of a “Real Housewives” roadtrip — monogrammed pouches with the women’s names on them, a “Would You Rather?” book — litter the bus.

Mic off, Jen leaves, putting her phone back up to her ear. Heather Gay asks Jen what’s going on, and Jen tells the women: “I just got a phone call. I need to go.” Lisa Barlow is confused: “Wait, wait, what? You have to go?” Jen gets into a truck, and is driven away. Then, we hear sirens, and a chyron reads “12 Minutes Later.” Police swarm the parking lot, with their blurred-out faces and vests that indicate they’re from the Department of Homeland Security. Heather and Whitney are literally agape. “You guys,” Heather says, “what if she’s on the run?”

On that day, March 30, Jen Shah was arrested and indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with telemarketing and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Later that week, she pleaded not guilty in federal court. The charges against Shah and her assistant Stuart Smith are serious, and the language in the indictment was scornful.

“Jennifer Shah, who portrays herself as a wealthy and successful businessperson on ‘reality’ television, and Stuart Smith, who is portrayed as Shah’s ‘first assistant,’ allegedly generated and sold ‘lead lists’ of innocent individuals for other members of their scheme to repeatedly scam,” it reads in part. “In actual reality and as alleged, the so-called business opportunities pushed on the victims by Shah, Smith, and their co-conspirators were just fraudulent schemes, motivated by greed, to steal victims’ money. Now, these defendants face time in prison for their alleged crimes.”

The first season of “Salt Lake City” was a success, drawing in same-day ratings an average of 609,000 viewers and a .2 in the demo, which is better than the recently scrapped (for now, at least) fifth season of “Real Housewives of Dallas” (522,000 average in Live + Same Day ratings, and a .18 in the demo).

Season 2 will surely build on that popularity. After the first scene of the premiere, the episode flashes back to two months before Jen’s arrest. It’s is a regular, entertaining episode, as opposed to a heart-attack-inducing one — an archetypal premiere that sets the table for the season.

But what it’s all building to is the “This season on…” montage that comes at the end, which shows — among many other things, including a wild plot-point about whether Mary Cosby is a cult leader — Jen crying to her husband about the possibility of going to prison; insinuations that it was castmate Meredith Marks who sent federal investigators Jen’s way (seemingly a big story arc); Lisa possibly ditching Jen as a friend; and Meredith saying to Jen, “Who’s calling who a fraud? Love you, baby. Bye!”

On social media, Jen has appeared to take her quandary surprisingly lightly, most recently using the “hold my beer” meme to compare her troubles to Erika’s in a since-deleted post. In that spirit, perhaps the best sign that “Salt Lake City” will make Jen Shah’s plight into seriously good TV is how Shah has elected to present herself in her tagline in the opening credits:

“The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing.”

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