There’s something intrinsically depressing about the very premise of Real Housewives of Washington D.C.—even beyond the standard depressing-ness of the entire Bravo franchise about table-toppling, hair-pulling female nutjobs. It’s not that the D.C. women are not sufficiently glamorous or embarrassing to gape at. In fact, if the premiere episode says anything about the capital, it’s that women can get drunk and blurt out ambiguously racist things in swanky celebrity restaurants as easily here as they do it in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, or Orange County. But the striving in this version takes on a new, desperate edge we haven’t yet seen.
The real currency in Washington isn’t money but “proximity to power,” the first voiceover cautions us. And all the other Housewives, however crazy they may be, will at some level be at home with social status, great wealth, buckets of booze, and the possibility of being mistaken for their own 15-year-old daughters. But the D.C. Housewives crave something they will likely never even come near: power. And that makes the show painful, unless you are one of those people who actually enjoys watching Icarus get fried.
These women want to be near the president. They want to be close to people who are employed by the president. They want to see hastily snapped mobile-phone images of the vice president in the backseat of a limo that may or may not also be carrying the president. And each time any one of these things happens, the Housewives all stop, gasp, and visibly pine. At an America’s Polo Cup event, taking place at the base of the Washington Monument, conversation stops and eyes shoot raptly upward as one of the Housewives hisses, “Flyover.”
Now, maybe something like that would happen if “Joey Bananas” Bonanno’s limo were to roll by a birthday bash attended by the Real Housewives of New Jersey. But the sad reality of this new reality show is that, unlike the other Housewives, the five heroines chosen to star in this new series are never going to get close to their big dreams. Power has the potential to be more dignified, interesting, even more awesome than money. But a successful D.C. realtor, the founder of the “top modeling agency in D.C.,” a broadcast legacy with a biometric lock on her clothes closet, someone (briefly) married to a Newsweek photographer (who appears also to have mauled Prince Harry at some juncture), and a gatecrasher-to-be-named later are going to come about as close to real Washington power as, say, the Real Housewives of Cape Canaveral will get to a moon walk. (Deep Throat was called Deep Throat for a reason. No great insights about the inner workings of D.C. ever emanated from someone nicknamed Deep Tissue Massage.)
So the new pack of Housewives are left to compete over their relative near-proximity to power: One of them cheerfully brags about which former president RSVP-ed to her wedding (and didn’t attend). The fact that one of the cast members actually may have committed a felony to achieve a momentary brush with presidential power takes the show from the aspirational voyeurism at the heart of the reality show genre to an uneasy longing for pharmacological intervention.
The other flaw I can detect in early viewings of Real Housewives of D.C. is that the producers have mostly failed to bring the crazy. The four women who are mothers all appear to be rather loving and supportive. The husbands and boyfriends are normal, if forgettable. None of the children manifests an immediate penchant for being arrested. Nobody seems to be positioning herself for a recording career. The character who initially produces 90 percent of the friction—a British transplant called Catherine “Cat” Ommanney—suffers from only one discernible pathology: Like all non-Americans, she hasn’t been coached in the need to speak in circles about politics and race. In fact it is race that clearly engenders most of the catfighting—such as it is—in the first episode, whether it’s Ommanney insulting Tyra Banks with a head-jerking, finger-snapping parody, or a drunken Mary Schmidt Amons (the broadcast legacy) delivering an impassioned plea to the lone black housewife, Stacie Scott Turner, and celebrity black hair stylist Ted Gibson, that it’s high time American hair salons were “integrated.” Amons awkwardly corners Turner and Gibson at her birthday party and—following yet morehead-jerking and finger-snapping—practically weeps that, “Yes, we have different hair, different needs, but why do we have to have different salons?” Turner looks as horrified as we all feel while she is forced to listen to what sounds eerily like Barbie’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
The show promises that it will be different from the other Housewife franchises in that the cast will engage deeply with politics and issues. In the first episode, this takes the form of Cat slamming President Obama for both declining to RSVP to her wedding and failing to recognize that her husband, the Newsweek photojournalist, got him elected through his masterful photography. She says President Bush was classier. Again Stacie Turner appears horrified, and we wait, with bated breath, for some exposition from her on either George Bush’s flaws or Obama’s greatness. None comes. And none will. The only D.C. insider who makes an appearance on the pilot is Michele Jones, special assistant to the secretary of defense and a White House liaison, who became linked to the gate-crashers-to-be-named later and their attempt to attend a White House state dinner last November. Asked by reporters last week why there would be no real politicians on the show, Stacie Turner explained that D.C. “is super-conservative—there are so many people that couldn’t do the show for that reason, and confidentiality.” Confidentiality. Which definitely explains why the Sunday morning opinion shows have such a hard time finding politicians to serve as guests.
The Salahis. They do crop up here and there in the pilot, like those people from Dayton who leap into Al Roker’s face each morning bearing large signs that say “Hey Al! I’m from Dayton.” Michaele Salahi—at least based on the premiere—is exactly what you might expect. She calls the Oval Office the “Oval Room” and officiates over a “pinky swear” that she and Cat Ommanney will go horseback riding on the beach. She hugs everyone! The other Housewives worry that she’s too skinny! And she is never more than eight feet away from a rack of designer clothes! In other words, she would be the perfect Housewife were this show sited in Orange County, New York, or Atlanta. But when she stops her very own polo gala to gaze up at the sky and sigh “Flyover,” her futile longing becomes painful in a way that even table-flipping and pop star dreams never were. Is America ready for an aspirational show about absolutely hopeless aspiration? God, I hope not.