Texas Monthly: Style’s `Big Rich Texas’ Is an Unlikely Reality-TV Hit

December 23rd, 2012

Style for The Texas Tribune

The “Big Rich Texas” cast includes Bonnie Blossman, third from left, and her daughter, Whitney.

In a cosmetic surgeon’s office in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas, a mother sat in on a consultation with her 16-year-old daughter. Her explanation for their visit?

“She has these railroad tracks on her forehead that I think are unsightly,” she said and added, “She needs Botox.” Far from being traumatized, her daughter appeared to be in complete agreement.

“Is there a law that says she can’t do this?” the mother asked the doctor.

The doctor said no, then, in an impressive pivot, noted, “There’s laws of nature.”

This is the world of “Big Rich Texas,” a reality series on the Style Network that follows seven sets of mothers and daughters in the Dallas area, who are perhaps a bit too predictably obsessed with big hair, plastic surgery and the size of a lady’s engagement ring. (The third-season finale was shown last Sunday, but two reunion specials are scheduled for next month.)

Reconfigured out of the detritus of a failed reality series called “Dallas Divas and Daughters,” “Big Rich Texas” began in summer 2011, around the same time a number of other North Texas-set reality series came into being. Even by the standards of such shows, reviews have been almost entirely withering. (The Dallas-based blogger Ed Bark wrote that “no one in the nation at large will see anything more than the usual paint-by-numbers portrait of a city that actually stands for a lot more than wretched excess in the name of naked greed.”)

But while other shows like Bravo’s “Most Eligible: Dallas,” CMT’s “Texas Women” and Logo’s series “The A List: Dallas” barely made a ripple in the popular culture, “Big Rich Texas” has seen steady ratings increases, and its cast members have emerged as minor celebrities. And the show has had another unlikely triumph: “Big Rich Dallas” has spawned a franchise, with “Big Rich Atlanta” set to have its premiere in January.

“If Atlanta is a success, we’d love to dive right into another region quickly,” said Sarah Weidman, the network’s senior vice president for original programming and development.

“Big Rich Texas” took a somewhat circuitous path to television fame. According to Ms. Weidman, network executives were drawn to the idea of setting a reality show in Dallas. The network liked the concept of mother-daughter pairings, but “Dallas Divas and Daughters,” which had its premiere in October 2009, never found an audience.

Not ready to give up on the idea, Style executives retained two of the cast members from “Dallas Divas and Daughters” — the sharp-tongued Pamela Martin-Duarte and her daughter, Hannah — and tweaked the premise: In “Big Rich Texas,” the mothers and daughters would all be members of the same exclusive country club. (The club, Woodhaven, is actually in Fort Worth and is not widely considered by North Texans to be among the most exclusive.)

This time the formula worked, and “Big Rich Texas” was quickly renewed for a second and then a third season.

The show received an additional boost of “only in reality-TV world” publicity last April, when Ms. Martin-Duarte filed a defamation lawsuit against her fellow cast members Bonnie Blossman and Dena Miller — who dropped out of the show after a few weeks of shooting — and the blogger Merritt Patterson, who had written critically about the show. (Ms. Martin-Duarte, who quit the show after the second season, has since dropped Ms. Patterson and Ms. Miller from the suit but is still suing Ms. Blossman.)

The Season 3 premiere of “Big Rich Texas,” in October, attracted 544,000 total viewers, a 29 percent increase over the Season 2 premiere in February. Those numbers are not too far behind the network’s most popular show, “Giuliana and Bill,” which has averaged about 650,000 total viewers this season.

Why was this reality show a breakout when so many others that tried to capitalize on America’s continuing cultural preoccupation with Dallas failed? Caitlin Adams, who blogs about “Big Rich Texas” for D Magazine, said that the show tapped into America’s “everything is bigger and weirder” fascination with Texas.

But Ms. Adams also said that the women on “Big Rich Texas” were somehow relatable to a mainstream, recession-era viewer.

“A few of these ladies are divorced or living in apartments,” Ms. Adams said, “trying to live more glamorous lives than they actually have.”

The show has been criticized for wallowing in the worst sort of clichés about Texas women, but Ms. Weidman said that the characters did not perpetuate the myth.

“There is some of that sprinkled in, if they get dolled up for the night,” she said. “But we work very hard to find multidimensional women who aren’t just one thing. If they seem stereotypical, hopefully in the next episode you’ll see another side of them that surprises you.”

Still, at least one of its cast members acknowledges that “Big Rich Texas” — like most reality series — tends to maximize the negative and leave the positive on the cutting-room floor.

“They don’t show me and my daughter working with charities,” said Ms. Blossman, who appears on the show with Whitney, her 24-year-old daughter.

“That is the bad part of being on a show like this,” she continued. “They’re not going to choose the positives of what you do and what you are. They’re obviously going to highlight the drama.”

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