When it comes to an iteration of Bravo’s perpetually hatching Real Housewives franchise, there’s no such thing as new. Sure, the characters are different, and the locale adds a dash of indiscernible flavor. But the chassis is always the same—vapid, scripted reality featuring women who dramatize their lives in most unflattering ways. Despite knowing this, I expected the latest version, The Real Housewives of D.C., to be an improvement. Maybe “improvement” is not the right word—since anyone who declares that one edition is superior to any other is fooling himself—but I thought that if any city could deliver a markedly different tone and feel to the familiar structure, Washington, D.C., would be the one to do it.
The producers apparently thought so, too. Among the first lines of voice-over we hear is, “Flaunting money doesn’t impress people; the currency here is proximity to power.” It’s a potentially electrifying culture to graft on the Housewives format, which is so deeply rooted in conspicuous consumption and women who are monomaniacal in their pursuit of wealth, opulence, and the projection of such. The hair-pulling assault that is fueling the drama on this season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey stemmed from an argument in which one cast member told the other her house was in foreclosure. Zing. In the Housewives universe, there are certain lines one does not cross; attack a woman’s loved ones and sartorial missteps, but the disposition of her mortgage is off-limits.
But while a look at D.C.’s power-based economy might have yielded interesting results, the bona fide Beltway divas wouldn’t go near this Housewives show in a couture hazmat suit. So we’re left with the lowest-hanging cherry blossoms—the women with no proximity to power, either physical (most of the cast members live in outlying Virginia suburbs) or personal (one woman’s closest brush is a photo with Barack Obama long before his presidential run).
The one exception is Cat Ommanney, whose husband, Charles, is a White House photographer (and NEWSWEEK contributor). Granted, she’s never met the president herself, but there’s only one degree of separation. Still, the producers try to use it to flesh out their power-as-currency conceit. Cat offends the guests at a dinner party when she praises George W. Bush and denigrates Obama, mostly because the former R.S.V.P.’d to her wedding while the latter did not. The question, of course, is not whether Cat’s assessment is valid, but rather the intent: is there legitimate enmity, or is she merely trying to wring jealousy from the other women? These are the kinds of narrative fumes that make the Housewives engines run, but unfortunately, name-dropping commanders in chief doesn’t make it any more compelling. Especially considering Cat and Charles have reportedly split—meaning the slight hint of D.C. insider flair will be completely missing in season two.
Still, there is a masterstroke to be found in The Real Housewives of D.C., and that’s the show’s treatment of Michaele Salahi, best known for sauntering uninvited into a White House state dinner last November. The firestorm over the gate-crashers—Michaele and her husband, Tareq—was excessive to begin with, and when it was revealed that the entire episode was being filmed for possible inclusion in a reality show, I actually found the whole thing less odious rather than more. We understand that the job of a reality-show star is to do outrageous things, not on a soundstage, but in real life. We understand that people go through exhaustive audition and application processes for the privilege of having that job. Is there any better a way to audition for the job of a person who does wild-’n’-crazy stuff on camera, than to, y’know, do wild-’n’-crazy stuff? Is Michaele’s premeditation in carrying out a plan to land a job that egregious? I say no, but a Gallup poll called the Salahis the biggest political losers of 2009 (edging out Rep. Joe Wilson and Gov. Mark Sanford), so I’m alone on that one.
Rather than let public sentiment toward the Salahis spoil the broth, Bravo has decided to cast Michaele as the franchise’s villain. On every Housewives show, there are rivalries hung on the flimsiest of pegs, and D.C.’s seem especially apocryphal. Mary, a married mother of five with a biometric lock on her walk-in closet, says she knows Michaele from way back, and without elaborating even a little bit, says she would feel weird having Michaele at a party in her honor—before, naturally, inviting her anyway. Without explaining the source of the rifts, practically every character greets the mention of Michaele’s name with an eye roll and a snarky comment about her wispy frame. Of course, Michaele gets the spite-edit, too. One of her first lines of dialogue is, “When people first see me, they think, ‘God, there is no substance to her.’ ” The producers have taken their biggest liability and turned her into a strength—not only by including the state-dinner stunt and its aftermath in the show, but also by using narrative devices to show that, yeah, they might have given her a television show, but they can’t stand Michaele any more than you do.