Tamra Judge Just Saved ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Bravo
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Bravo

Typically, when it’s time for a cast member within Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise to be shepherded off the show, it’s done so gracefully. Their stories tend to wrap up nicely, with a pleasant little chyron telling us that they are “choosing to focus on family” or “focused on their kitchenware line” instead of returning the next season. For Real Housewives of Orange County star Tamra Judge, things went a little differently. Judge ended her 12-year tenure on the show inside of a bush, crying and shooing away her fellow cast members, who were trying to help her out of the topiary. She had a chance to smooth things out at the Season 14 reunion, but Judge was let go from the show shortly thereafter.

Three years—and one successful run on Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip—later, Judge is back from the bushes, with her head held high (and maybe a few leaves in her hair). She returns Season 17 of RHOC, a strategic move on the part of producers, who also brought back alumnus Heather Dubrow last season to soup up a franchise that seemed like it was on its last legs. Orange County might be the longest-running Housewives iteration ever, but that doesn’t mean the car doesn’t need some gas to keep going without problems. It’s a good thing, then, that Judge isn’t just standard fuel for RHOC; with her back in the driver’s seat, Season 17 is running as smoothly as an electric hybrid—just plug her in and watch her go!

I wouldn’t make all those driving allusions if Season 17 didn’t welcome them. The premiere episode opens with Judge cruising down Californian highways on her motorcycle, hair whipping out from under her helmet (again, perhaps to clear it of those pesky sticks and leaves). And it’s not just hot rods she’s driving, it’s this whole damn show. Judge is back with a fire lit under her ass, like all Housewives should be when they return from an absence. She’s sharp as a tack, responding to producer questions instantaneously with her quick wit in confessional scenes, and is unafraid to stir up a heaping helping of classic Orange County drama wherever she sees fit.

That’s bound to spell bad news for fellow cast member Shannon Beador, whose friendship with Judge dissolved after Judge’s exit from the show. Judge claims Beador ghosted her, while Beador swears that it was her olive branches that were left unclaimed. Surely, it was some combination of both. It always is. But we’re not here to see old friends shrug it off! We’re here to watch a bunch of uncompromising blonde women, who look almost identical, get into earth-shattering spats against the smooth stucco backdrop of their uniform houses.

Beador is a stickler for her version of the truth, and always has been. Who can forget, “You guys will all see the truth, you’ll all see the f*cking truth!” But more than just a spreader of her own personal gospel, she’s one of the Housewives universe’s greatest looney tunes, with an innate ability to find herself in places she doesn’t really belong. Before the first episode is over, Beador has already quite literally walked into a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear, and has no choice but to hash it out with Judge, when all she was trying to do was find the hors d’oeuvres after a group yoga session.

Even when they’re not on great terms, the combination of Judge and Beador in the same show is galvanizing. They’re both great at playing off the cuff, in different ways. Beador talks herself in circles until her foot appears in her mouth to stop her, and Judge is a spitfire who never quite knows when to stop.

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Joining their chaos this season is new RHOC Housewife Jennifer Pedranti, who must be the heir to the Ringling Brothers fortune, judging by the three-ring circus going on inside her house. Pedranti has five children, two dogs, two fish, two guinea pigs, a cat, and five foster cats. At times, Pedranti looks like influencer and internet personality Gigi Gorgeous, and at others, she’s indistinguishable from the rest of her new group of friends. A little homogeny might confuse newcomers just joining in for Season 17, especially when fellow clone and franchise vet Taylor Armstrong makes the jump from the Beverly Hills franchise to RHOC later this season. But it actually works in the show’s favor. Half the time, I’m convinced the cast members of RHOC don’t remember which white, blonde lady they’re fighting with, so they just start quarreling with someone else. They exist in a state of perma-squabble, which miraculously doesn’t feel manufactured.

In the current Real Housewives era, the drama has seemed much more produced than organic. That unfortunate phenomenon has occasionally befallen RHOC, but the show has been mostly spared from the kind of fabricated fighting we’ve seen plague, say, Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. If the ladies of Orange County are boring us, it’s because they truly have nothing going on, not because they’re trying to do too much with no endgame.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Andrew Eccles/Bravo</div>
Andrew Eccles/Bravo

Compared to the performative atmosphere of another long-running franchise, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, RHOC is a surprising breath of fresh air. These women don’t spend too much time trying to edit themselves or their storylines as they’re happening, which has threatened to shatter the quality of RHOBH multiple times a season over the last five years, at least. The Housewives of RHOC go where the production schedules them to be, but that’s the extent of it. The rest is up to them. As their inspirational kitchen art probably says: It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I held off watching Real Housewives of Orange County for so long, only to recently discover its brilliance. It’s a franchise unbeholden to reality television rules, because it had a hand in creating them. By just slapping a camera on these ladies one fateful day in 2005, Bravo struck gold. We’ve become so used to seeing Housewives cling to their television stardom with a white-knuckle grip; in the O.C., they come and go, almost at their leisure. They know that good reality television is 1-percent planning, 28-percent alcohol, and 71-percent sheer luck. To be this far into its run and still surprising fans with a seventeenth season as rejuvenated as Terry Dubrow’s face is a modern miracle. For better or worse, Real Housewives of Orange County is a show that has always been flying by the seat of its miniskirt. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and Bravo fans shouldn’t either.

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