The Rituals Of Reality TV Reunions: An In-Depth Examination

The reunion is an essential element of the reality TV industrial complex, one that has gone through a massive evolution since its inception. First introduced back in 1995 by MTV’s The Real World, the reality TV reunion special has gone from a post-season after-thought to a spectacle of fourth-wall breaking attempts at resolution. Other series produced reunions of their own through the rest of the ‘90s and into the early ‘00s, but it was Bravo and its Real Housewives franchise that forever solidified reunions as the Super Bowls of unscripted TV since the first reunion aired in 2007. 

Reunions are the catalyst for jaw-dropping chains of events that become immortalized in pop culture history. Never forget when Jason Mesnick sent Bachelor Nation into a frenzy when he swapped fiancées during After The Final Rose, or when Kim Richards returned the stuffed bunny to Lisa Rinna on an RHOBH reunion, giving us a mascara tear rivaled only by Lauren Conrad’s on The Hills. Characterized now by screaming matches, grown-ass women wearing prom gowns, 12-hour filming days, game-changing receipts, and storm-offs, reunions are so well-trodden at this point, that a system of rituals and routines have emerged. There is a scientific equation that reality stars now follow, whether consciously or unconsciously. While every great reunion has some sort of X-factor or surprise that leaves everyone quaking in its wake — so much so that group chats around the world still reference them years later — ultimately, there is an established set of unwritten rules that govern how reunions operate. 

From seating charts and set design and to 10-person glam teams and special guests, reunions can only truly cement themselves in the history books when all the necessary ingredients are in place. In the pages and charts that follow, you’ll learn about the intricacies of reality TV reunion rituals with the help of some herstoric examples that will be studied for years to come. 

Image Credit: Bravo

The Objective

The official aim of a reunion special is to (literally) reunite a show’s cast, because, after all, they are co-workers who desperately needed a break from one another after filming for the season concluded. The goal is to resolve any lingering issues or tension and give the show a relatively clean slate before moving onto the next season. 

Unofficially, though, each individual star seeks to secure their spot on the next season by stepping up to the plate and proving they’re worthy of a coveted contract renewal. Whether that’s through truth-telling, confrontation, prop work, showing out with an iconic look, gritting their teeth through a long-awaited apology, or some combination of the above, that’s up for the star to decide. Reunions are the Hunger Games of reality television, and we can’t help but watch.

The Setup: Glam, Looks, Set Design, Seating Charts

The aesthetics of a reunion are vital, because how are you going to show up if you’re not going to also show out? The Real Housewives elevated reunion uniforms from slacks and sweaters (see: the first seasons of RHOC or RHOA) to full-on Oscar-ready ballgowns from elite couture houses like Jovani. Participants arrive to set at the crack of dawn to get into full glam, surrounded by their army-sized teams, before stepping out into the reunion sets, which often mirror a key setting from that season or reflect that show’s vibe. Which chair they are in is also preordained by producers, who strategically map out where the cast sits on two opposing couches, which tend to inform viewers who are currently getting along with whom. If you’re going to be yelling at an adversary, it makes for much better TV if you’re doing it from across the room than if you were sitting next to them. 

Image Credit: Bravo

Sorry They’re Late — They Were in Glam:

  • The RHOC season 1 reunion took place in a backyard, and Jeana Keough literally just wore jeans and a tank top. Years later, J.Crew queen of cool Jenna Lyons would make waves when she chicly paired jeans with a tuxedo jacket for the RHONY season 14 reunion.
  • Danielle Staub spent season 2 of RHONJ as public enemy No. 1, and she similarly stood out from the rest of the group at the reunion when she wore a white tank top with a sparkly pink mini-skirt.
  • The RHOSLC season 4 reunion was notable for many reasons, one of which was its tragic-looking shipwreck set, as inspired by the group’s iconic trip to Bermuda.
  • The Keeping Up With the Kardashians reunion featured many quintessential modern reunion aesthetics: glamorous, color-coordinated gowns; a lavish reunion set adorned with memorabilia from the show; two opposing couches; and the two biggest power players of the group — Kris and Kim — in the seats closest to Andy Cohen.

Enter The Reading Room

Reading is fundamental and, no, that’s not a reference to the kind you do with books. This is the kind of reading that Urban Dictionary defines as, “to publicly ‘call out’ or insult someone on their actual flaws,” which is a pillar when it comes to the verbal sparring we see on every reunion. To help illustrate this practice, here are some examples from the masters of the craft:

  • NeNe Leakes telling Kim Zolciak to “close your legs to married men!” at the RHOA season 1 reunion
  • Tamra Judge calling Alexis Bellino “Jesus Jugs” at the RHOC season 7 reunion
  • Phaedra Parks dressing down Kenya Moore at the RHOA season 6 reunion: “You don’t know if your baby daddy will be an ax murderer or a child molester. What you will know is that he needed $10 to get him a medium-size pizza so he ejaculated in a cup so you could have a kid. Now check that!”
  • Erik finally having to face Parvati, Cirie, Amanda, and Natalie after being dubbed “the dumbest Survivor ever” when he infamously gave up his immunity idol on Survivor: Micronesia
  • Chantel dressing down Colt on a 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? tell-all by savagely asking, “Is it because you love your mama more than your ex-wife?”
  • Kathy Hilton saying to Lisa Rinna at the RHOBH season 12 reunion, “You are the biggest bully in Hollywood, and everyone knows it!”
  • Andy Cohen occasionally enters the reading room, too, like when he told Candiace Dillard Bassett during the RHOP season 5 reunion that she was a “disaster on Twitter,” to which she replied, “thank you.”

Image Credit: Bravo

Receipts, Proof, Timeline, Screenshots (And Stunts)

One of the most pertinent rituals of the reality TV reunion to emerge over the years has been the inclusion of receipts, which sometimes prove to be a genuine smoking gun, though many totally flop and prove nothing. Receipts aren’t the only stunts that people pull at reunions, though: We often get storm-offs, props, and other out-of-the-box attempts at vindication, too. While production doesn’t provide cast members with any props, many stars have taken it upon themselves to bring proof in a variety of forms to back up their claims and bolster their own arguments:

  • Bethenny Frankel and Carole Radziwill’s fallout ended at the RHONY season 10 reunion, when they each brought out their phones to read damning texts about one another.
  • Some iconic reunion props include Kim Richards’ stuffed bunny, a gift from Lisa Rinna to her grandson which she returned to Rinna at the reunion, Danielle Staub’s mannequin with hair. extensions, Kenya Moore’s megaphone, Quad Webb’s “delusional” placard, Monique Samuels’ binder, Shereé Whitfield’s “SHE News” printouts, and Monica Garcia’s Burn Book.
  • Angela Deem from 90 Day Fiancé made quite the impression on her post-season Tell All special when she flashed the camera and went on an expletive-laced tirade that isn’t fit for print while defending her latest plastic surgery.
  • While the aforementioned first-ever reality TV reunion for The Real World actually featured a walk-off, Ramona Singer was the first Housewife to do so. Others who have followed suit? Camille Grammer, Kelly Bensimon, Yolanda Hadid, Tamra Judge, Lisa Rinna, NeNe Leakes and Kandi Burruss… just to name a few. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino famously walked off a Jersey Shore reunion, too, as did Jenelle Evans on a Teen Mom 2 reunion.

The X-Factors

As mentioned above, some of the most memorable reunions featured some sort of X-factor that set them apart and enabled them to contribute something wholly new to the reality TV canon. While much of the above taught us that reunions are based upon well-worn rituals, these X-factors remind us that sometimes routines need to be shaken up a little — or a lot:

  • The biggest recurring curveball you can get at a reality TV reunion is a no-show, because it prevents the cast — and viewers — from getting the resolution they deserve. Some examples of this are Lisa Vanderpump during RHOBH season 9, Christine Quinn during Selling Sunset season 5, Jacqueline Laurita during RHONJ season 3, and Adrienne Maloof during RHOBH season 3.
  • There have also been numerous special guests, like Vicki Gunvalson’s daughter Briana at the RHOC season 8 reunion, Nicki Minaj guest-hosting the RHOP season 6 reunion and Phaedra Parks’ ex, Apollo, showing up to the season 10 reunion for Married to Medicine.
  • Some of the most impactful reunions feature genuine bombshells. There was Nick Viall revealing he’d slept with Andi Dorfman during season 10 of The Bachelorette’s After The Final Rose, Dr. Simone and Cecil Whitmore’s marriage being saved on the Married to Medicine season 5 reunion, and the shocking RHOA season 9 reunion where it came out that Phaedra Parks had orchestrated Porsha Williams’ salacious claims about Kandi Burruss. 
  • Other so-called X-factors over the years? Rachel’s restraining order against Scheana at the Vanderpump Rules season 10 reunion, physical altercations (like Tiffany “New York” Pollard and Pumkin from Flavor of Love, Teresa and Andy, Porsha, and Kenya) and, yes, COVID (never forget those triggering virtual Bravo reunions or that one RHONY reunion where they were seated, like, 100 feet away from one another with face shields on). 
  • Never forget when Netflix tried to air Love is Blind season 4’s reunion live, only to have the attempt totally backfire due to technical difficulties.

Image Credit: Netflix

Conflict Resolution

By the end of the reunion, most conflicts from that season should be resolved and, if they’re not, there should be a compelling thread that we promise to follow into next season. This means that, oftentimes, reunions will end with each participant having one last moment to share their piece, address any unresolved issues, and usually express hope for the future of the friendships within the cast.

Gibson Johns
Gibson Johns
Gibson Johns is a podcast host, freelance writer and semi-professional live tweeter. He's interviewed over 100 Bravolebrities, was a Swiftie before it was cool and his favorite celebrity conspiracy theory is that Demi Lovato has a secret twin named Poot. As far as he's concerned, it may not be about the pasta — but it's always about Tom.