Just when you didn't think that Bravo wouldn't extend its popular "Real Housewives" franchise to yet another city, they have gone ahead and not not done it.
"The Real Housewives of D.C." begins Thursday, following in the high-heeled footsteps of equally "real" "housewives" of New Jersey, Atlanta, New York and Orange County. Bravo might demur, but I can only read the title as ironic. I know a few real housewives — or actual housewives, perhaps I should say, to not violate the brand — and this is something else again.
Like its predecessors, the series concerns a group of women, some of them friends but most of whom clearly would not spend this much, if any, time together if they weren't costars in a reality show. It differs from MTV's "The Real World," which also mixes local color with enforced camaraderie, in that its stars are generally middle-aged or about to be, there are children around (though mostly glimpsed at the margins of the action) and everyone is rich.
I understand the appeal of these shows — the diamond-studded train wrecks, the Crystal-and-Alexis catfights the envy expressed as disdain, the disdain inseparable from envy — though not, when there is so much evidence to the contrary, why anyone still finds it a good idea to appear in them. "Housewives D.C." offers neither a portrait of Washington insider society, to which its stars have no access, or even an unvarnished look at any person's real life. People are more complicated than this, and (for much of the day) more normal — what in this context would be called "boring."
There is the usual range of characters and pathologies, with real estate agent Stacie Scott Turner — the African American Housewife, a reasonable inclusion in a show set in the capital city in the age of Obama — the most balanced and unaffected, and White House party crasher Michaele Salahi the most clearly in need of a good talking-to. Salahi and her husband, Tareq — likely to be what Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag will see when they look in the mirror a few years hence — are fate's great gift to the producers, who could not have guessed that whatever incipient disaster they smelled on them would blow up into front-page news.
The show casts Michaele as the fool right from the start – she calls the Oval Office the Oval Room, with overplayed reaction shots duly appended — with Housewife Lynda Erkiletian, the head of a D.C.-based modeling agency, as her most vocal frenemy. Erkiletian sniffs at the Salahis as "second-tier," which actually seems sort of kind, and the polo match they stage as "a little goat rodeo." But she is sniffed at in turn for her much younger, very buff boyfriend.
Rounding out the sisterhood are Catherine Ommanney, called Cat, the designated "new girl in town," a British import married to a bona-fide White House photographer, and Mary Schmidt Amons, whose grandfather was old-time TV host Arthur Godfrey and whose father knew Ethel Kennedy. Mary seems nice; Cat — who has written a memoir that her own website describes as "told both in diary form and through the text messages of the men she loves along the way" — could be trouble.
Although the new series has been promoted as unusually "political," in the first episode at least this amounts only to Cat's heated defense of George W. Bush as a gentleman. (Stacey begins to say something of possible substance — "George Bush forced everyone to agree…" — but is cut off either by her cast mates or editors.) And Mary, a little worse for drink at her birthday party, declares to a bemused Stacey, "Salons need to integrate. We have different hair, different needs — but why do we have to be in a different salon?" Free at last, free at last.