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Teresa Giudice Checks In, America Checks Out

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Photo: Getty Images/Bravo

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The Real Housewives Of..., Andy Cohen's demented monster of a reality series, is notorious for mapping the demise of the social lives, marriages, and god-given faces of several of its subjects. Fellow castmates revealed New Jersey housewife Danielle Staub's secret criminal past; New York housewife Bethenny Frankel's divorce played out on-screen; Orange County housewife Tamra Judge's behavior on the show contributed to her losing custody of her eldest daughter. Yet never before have Bravo fans seen the aftermath of reality programming rear its elegantly contoured head as it did with the astronomical fall of Teresa Giudice and her husband Joe, the breakout stars of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

From Real Housewives of New Jersey's premiere until now, the Giudice family has been famed in family rooms and office kitchenettes around the country for their excessive hubris. In the first season, viewers saw Teresa pay upward of $120,000 in cash at a furniture warehouse. On her decision to build the couple's 10,044 square foot mansion in Towaco, NJ from the ground up, Teresa said, "I don't want to live in somebody else's house. That's gross." She dressed her adolescent daughters up like wedding cakes and primed them for early fame with acting lessons. She drove a Maserati. She had horrible taste (in friends, in clothes, in husband), and that endeared her to fans. Viewers delighted in the imminent schadenfreude promised as she spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars indulging those sensibilities, money that we all knew she didn't have.

Photo: Getty Images/Mike Coppola

And for the past three weeks, on a special edition of Real Housewives of New Jersey called Teresa Checks In, the Giudices have found themselves in the sort of trouble that Bravo fans have secretly been hoping for. In 2009, the Giudices filed for bankruptcy with 11 million dollars of debt. They dropped the filing in 2011, but that very petition led to charges of conspiracy to commit mail, wire, bank, and bankruptcy frauds. In 2013, Joe stood trial for using his brother's marriage and birth certificates to obtain a driver's license after a DUI in 2010. Teresa is currently in the middle of serving her 15 month sentence. Joe will serve 41 months of prison, with the possibility of deportation (he admitted in part two of Teresa Checks In that he "never thought to file" for citizenship, though his parents and siblings are citizens). Now, Teresa is in the process of suing her bankruptcy lawyer. It's a baffling amount of legal trouble for a couple who, truthfully, kind of seemed too stupid to be malicious (in Teresa Checks In, Joe still claims he didn't know he was engaging in any sort of illegal activity).

In the sixth season of Real Housewives of New Jersey, the series that detailed the months immediately before Teresa went to prison, viewers saw a Teresa who was visibly humbled. It's possible (yes, very possible) that she was faking a more sympathetic portrayal of her public persona months before she went to prison. Probably more lucratively, she was creating a more watchable iteration of Old Teresa to helm a special Giudice-focused mini-series, prison memoirs, and a triumphant return to Real Housewives of New Jersey, for which she is rumored to be getting a big, fat million dollar paycheck.

It's a baffling amount of legal trouble for a couple who, truthfully, kind of seemed too stupid to be malicious.

But viewers saw her deflated look. Viewers saw her cracking and crying — a mom trying to protect her kids, not from the harsh lighting of reality TV, but from their parents' money problems. Her biggest plotline in Season 6 was about spreading a rumor she heard from notorious mob wife Victoria Gotti. In the past, this kind of scheming, could be the fodder for table-flipping and "Prostitution whore!" screaming. She ended the feud with a hug. The new Teresa, as she appears on TV at least, is a spectre of her old self.

A disembodied voice on the phone is almost not enough to base a reality show around, but Teresa, including a little bit of Old Teresa, still lingers in Jersey. Even from prison, she's running the family. Viewers see her in the Gucci plates that she requested Gia use when her family comes over. She hires a makeup artist and sends flowers to Gia on her eighth grade graduation. We see her old self — in a flashback — when Joe and Leonard dine at Lu Nella, the same restaurant where Teresa flipped a table seven years ago. We particularly see Teresa in the striking face of Gia, her eldest daughter. Before only known to us as wild child and sometimes pop star, Gia has a preternatural amount of composure and elegance for a 14-year-old Jersey girl who grew up on Bravo.

For the past three weeks on Teresa Checks In, her ghost is even slighter — just a voice on a phone calling from the Federal Correction Institute in Danbury, CT. In every episode, Teresa spends some of her 300 allowed minutes talking to Joe and her daughters Gia, Gabriella, Milania, and Audriana while the Bravo cameras are rolling (a Bravo rep declined to comment on recording phone calls from an inmate or how Teresa was able to time her calls for the Bravo cameras). She tells her daughters she loves them, that they're in her heart, that she wishes she could be with them. She tells Joe she wants him to hold her.

Photo: Getty Images/Bobby Bank

Joe and his ride-along lawyer James Leonard, who gets almost as many talking head minutes explaining the Giudice's situation as the star's own brother (also named Joe), can't seem to get their story straight as to whether or not Teresa's prison stay is breezy. In episode one, Joe claims that Danbury is "basically a low-budget spa." Moments later in the same episode, Leonard asserts, "She does watch television. They watch the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Atlanta. This is not a country club. This is not a day in the park for her. She's in prison."

Teresa's decision to continue generating money and fame off of being a convicted criminal has been a major criticism of Teresa Checks In. I've never believed in an America quite so noble as to refrain from reality TV just because its subject was immoral, but the TV-watching public surprised me. Teresa Checks In has proved to be a ratings bomb for Real Housewives, with just 1.23 million viewers tuning into its debut. I have a feeling this is because Teresa's voice, not her physical self, appears on this show and Juicy Joe's gruff meatheadedness doesn't exactly make for compelling TV. But maybe people are done being sympathetic. The Giudices, after all, defrauded a lot of people out of a lot of money, and plead guilty. They're brash name-callers, dealers in malapropism, and apparently didn't make their money the old-fashioned way.

But they can't get off the Real Housewives ride now. Still owing an estimated $13.4 million in 2014, what other choice does Teresa have? Real of Housewives of New Jersey, the apparatus that destroyed their public image, can save them again. Without Real Housewives, Teresa's other businesses, including her Prosecco line Fabellini, her haircare line Milania, or her New York Times best-selling cookbooks won't be featured in every other shot, and in turn, won't thrive. And when Teresa, the breadwinner, can't make money, she can't pay back her debt the good old-fashioned, American way. And isn't that what we want for her? We want her back on our TVs, but as she was before. We want her to come home.

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