In a TV world where reboots, revivals and surprising returns from fan-favorite characters rule the roost, Bravo's crowning jewel, the Real Housewives franchise, is no exception. And we all have Bethenny Frankel to thank for it.
When the undisputed star of The Real Housewives of New York City returned to her old stomping grounds in 2015 for the show's seventh season after a three-year hiatus—with the network heralding her return with the excellent tagline "The B Is Back"—she helped to revitalize an installment in the franchise that had been flagging ever since her departure. As fans watched her navigate a return to fraught relationships with Luann de Lesseps and Ramona Singer—and rekindle whatever you call the thing she has with Sonja Morgan—producers realized that this exploration of the show's history was doing more than the Cindy Barshops or Heather Thomsons or Kristin Taekmans ever could. Ratings were up, the show was returning to creative highs (season eight, in particular) and a new formula for the franchise had been born.
Since Bethenny's triumphant return, nearly every city in Bravo's current stable of Real Housewives entries has seen the much-touted return of a familiar face in hopes that lightning might strike twice (or thrice, or...you get it). From Sheree Whitfield's return to The Real Housewives of Atlanta—tentatively as a Friend of the Housewives on 2015 before re-upping to the main cast in 2016—after three years to Lydia McLaughlin re-joining The Real Housewives of Orange County for the upcoming 12th season four years after her first seasons, Danielle Staub's miraculous return to The Real Housewives of New Jersey for the upcoming eighth season after flaming out spectacularly in season two to NeNe Leakes' announcement just yesterday that the bloop will be back for season 10 of RHOA after leaving the main cast at the end of season seven, the franchise hasn't stopped looking backwards in an effort to drive itself into the future.
And the thing is—it's working. Returning to a built-in history doesn't require the time it takes for new cast members to find their place among the other ladies and really into the thick of it nor does it require the patience on the part of the audience. It's why, when Teresa Giudice was released from prison and cameras began rolling on season seven of RHONJ, her former BFF Jacqueline Laurita was asked to make her return. Her navigation of Tre's new reality and their fraught relationship mattered more to fans of the series than anything newcomers Siggy Flicker and Dolores Catania brought to the table. It's why Kim Richards, who was last credited as a main cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in season five, hasn't stopped being a central topic of conversation and a presence on the couches at the reunion specials for all seven seasons.
And it's why Lydia's return to RHOC, which while on the surface may seem like something of a head-scratcher—after all, she was only around for one season and didn't make that much of an impact during her tenure—actually just might be a stroke of genius. Think about it. She's returning to a cast line-up where the only crossovers from her prior season are Vicki Gunvalson and Tamra Judge. When she last filmed with them, they were thick as thieves. Now, they're bitter rivals. And she's in the unique position of having played no personal part in the former friends' last few nasty years. She has the potential to play a fascinating new role in their struggle moving forward with none of her own baggage. Could she even help broker peace? We'll certainly be tuning in to find out.
That's not to say that all returns have been a rousing success. Prior to Bethenny's homecoming, RHONJ tested the waters with the 2014 return of OG Dina Manzo, who'd been absent from the series since departing halfway through season two thanks to her nasty battle with Danielle Staub. Unfortunately, her appearance in season six—much like the season as a whole—proved to be a non-starter, ensuring her revival was short-lived. And Jill Zarin's much-hyped one-episode apparition in season nine of RHONY after five years away proved that some things are better left in the past.
And of course, credit where credit's due, the franchise has managed to find some fresh blood who've successfully become indelible parts of their respective installment's identity in recent years. Dorinda Medley, Shannon Beador, Kenya Moore and Erika Girardi are each latecomers to the worlds of RHONY, RHOC, RHOA and RHOBH, respectively, but we can't really imagine those shows without them now. It's as if they were there all along, or were meant to be. And love her or hate her, without Kelly Dodd's addition to RHOC, season 11 would've been a snoozefest. But for every Dorinda or Erika, there's been a Jules Wainstein or Teresa Aprea or Kathryn Edwards. And the list goes on.
As the franchise continues to age and finding fresh blood who the audience connects with immediately becomes harder and harder, it's only logical that producers will continue to rely on the rich history the casts have already cultivated to keep the Real Housewives alive and thriving. So what we're saying is: Get ready for a Brandi Glanville return on RHOBH in the near future. (We kid. We think.)
Are you a fan of the recent spate of Real Housewives returns? And who would you like to see return to the fold next? Sound off in the comments below.
The Real Housewives of New York City airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo, while The Real Housewives of Orange County returns for season 12 on Monday, July 10.
(E! and Bravo are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)