Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
I grew up in southern Illinois, surrounded by oil wells and soybeans and shuttered coal mines. By the end of my teenage years, I longed to escape to any metropolis that would have me. That desire to leave wasn’t rooted in feelings of inferiority; my geographic discomfort could more accurately be characterized as an invisibility complex. I wasn’t concerned that outsiders might think of my region as populated by uneducated hillbillies (for one thing, we have no hills to speak of). I was more afraid they’d never think of it at all. When I was nine, my county and the one just south of it had a bad tornado, and my main emotion was a quiet, guilty hope that we might’ve made national headlines. Any proof that my existence had been acknowledged by the people out there was overwhelmingly exciting to me.
For that reason, “The Real Housewives of New York” spinoff series “Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake,” starring longtime Real Housewives Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan, was a deeply engaging watch… for me.
Set in my county seat of Benton, Illinois, population 6,700, the eight-episode show takes up the tried and true format of dropping city slickers in the country to engage in all manner of down-home activity. “Crappie Lake,” filmed over six weeks in the summer of 2022, was produced by Benton native Russell Jay-Staglik. Benton Mayor Lee Messersmith told me via email that the show was inspired by the popular sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” hence the new moniker for the region’s primary reservoir, Rend Lake.
Images of the Housewives driving around the Benton town square and upsetting their stomachs in the Dairy Queen drive-thru happen to fulfill one of my most powerful childhood fantasies: making certain that people who live in places I can’t imagine can imagine the place I’m from.
But that excitement was balanced by a deep fear of how the show would portray my county. I wasn’t alone in that skepticism. My (sort of) Aunt Shyla — whom I immediately texted after I saw her face in episode 4, grinning in the background of the annual “testicle festival” at a bar and grill called Stringers — said that everyone expected the show to be just like “Poor White Trash (2000).” That movie, which I’d never heard of before, was filmed in nearby Orient and is widely remembered for making a mockery of our region.
Though I wasn’t old enough to experience the downsides of that national attention, I wasn’t sure how I would emotionally handle the likes of Bravo pretending to “revitalize” Benton. What if they made the locals look like idiots in the process?
Five minutes into episode 1, after Sonja mentioned her leaking liposuction, Luann called her companion the “yang to my yang… yin… whatever,” and the girls mistook their welcome party for rioters, that fear dissipated. It turns out that the show’s only clowns are the stars themselves.
The over-the-top prissiness of the main characters had a couple different effects. First, it made all the southern Illinoisans on the show seem brilliant by comparison, and second, it lowered the stakes by reminding the viewer how little reality there is in reality TV. In the fictional universe of the show, two grown-up cosmopolitans are dumb enough to inquire after a valet at the Motel Benton, and a visit from their friend Paula Abdul is all a sleepy, post-industrial town needs to regain its vitality.
The show’s premise is that Benton needs help after lockdown-related damage to the local economy. As evidence, the camera pans over the decrepit, two-screen Toler Cinema building out by the interstate, which actually closed in 2011.
Aside from this idea — that Covid-19 wrecked the region, not decades of plunder and abandonment by extractive industry — I found the show’s politics pretty harmless.
During their stint in Benton, Luann and Sonja receive five assignments from the mayor:
- Build a playground;
- Liven up the town’s Christmas in July celebration;
- Generate tourism;
- Work volunteer shifts at the dog pound; and
- Put together an end of summer variety show at the local Civic Center.
Most of these plotlines are mind-numbingly dull if you’re not excited about counting cameos by your former teachers (I got up to five), but the Housewives do their best to spice up the kennel building with raunchy jokes. The fact that the stars are each in a “divorce era,” looking for love while bar hopping, mudding, and fishing, provides the show much-needed — and almost unbearably cringey — intrigue.
Ultimately, despite its lack of drama or depth, the good intentions of the show win the day: the stray dogs get a bigger fence, the kids get a new playground, and southern Illinois gets some excitement. Any illusion that the big city girls are there to save the poor country people is dispelled by their extraordinary silliness. I’ll remain willfully ignorant of the show’s ratings. But now I know for sure that some geographically-dispersed, diehard group of Real Housewives fans has a vivid image of Benton, Illinois, sewage plant and all.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.