“Salons need to integrate,” Mary Schmidt Amons declares. “We have different hair, different needs, but why do we need to be in a different salon?”
It’s a simple enough question—the sort that passes for a philosophical dilemma when the new world of reality TV ponders the old scar of American racism. But Amons does not live in any ordinary corner of televisual reality. Her discourse on salon segregation takes place during the premiere of The Real Housewives of D.C., which makes her a character in a particularly special sort of reality show: The Washington reality show.
Which means that the tragedy of separate-but-equal hair-care has to be put in special context. National context. Capital context. Obama-era context! So she hastens to add that the salon status quo is especially tragic now, in this city, “with our new administration, with the beautiful couple we have leading our country…”
Amons trails off. A mother of five, she seems so uncomfortable around black people that she apparently cannot speak to her sole African-American castmate without exclaiming “Girlfriend” in a ghetto accent. She is drunk. Some part of her brain is probably telling her mouth that she sounds incredibly stupid. Stacie Scott Turner, the aforementioned black housewife, will not look her in the eye.
If the Real Housewives—debuting this week on Bravo—were taking place in any other town, Amons would be presented for what she is: A rich dunce with minimal sense of personal dignity. Her analogues during the show’s New York season weren’t cast as representatives of Wall Street; her Atlantan sisters weren’t portrayed as keys to understanding the corporate culture of Coca-Cola’s new-South hometown.
But in the pop-cultural imagination, Washington is different. Money, as anyone who’s never had to get a mortgage in Ward 3 will tell you, isn’t the currency here. Influence is. Thus Amons and her castmates can’t just be rich and embarrassing. They have to be rich and embarrassing and symbolic, a civics-class primer of our federal city’s hierarchy majesty and might. Amons, therefore, has to be a “Washington insider.”
The specifics of her claim to said title are rather dubious: She claims to be a lifelong D.C. resident yet lives in McLean, Va., which Bravo deems “an interesting little neighborhood.” She claims to be “best friends” with Washingtonian publisher Cathy Williams, yet Williams cannot pronounce Amons’ last name correctly.
In an ordinary season, the exposed social climbing would make for some nice reality world schadenfreude, the stuff Real Housewives always trades in. But the problem for the D.C. version is that the reality humiliations wind up trashing the show’s basic promise. In that single, drunken hair-care exchange, Amons—neither a D.C. resident nor a friend of the Obamas nor a particularly powerful person—utterly undercuts the show’s D.C.-centric opening monologue, in which a fellow housewife purrs, “The currency here is proximity to power.”
By the time she’s done, it’s clear that the buskers in Farragut Square are closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. than is Amons.
Welcome to reality TV’s Washington: Wealthy women with Newsweek-grade opinions waxing soporific on the existential significance of a black president on Real Housewives; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dicing things up on Top Chef; twentysomethings pining progressive on the Real World. And absolutely everyone—except maybe Tareq and Michaele Salahi—boring the pants off their viewers.
This is what happens, to paraphrase MTV’s flagship reality TV product, when shows stop being interesting and start symbolizing a wet finger in the wind.
Sometime in those heady days of fall, 2008, TV producers decided that the buzz surrounding the cool young president-elect meant our pokey old nation’s capital was getting hipper and more cosmopolitan. There’s some truth to that generalization, though the connection to Obama is tenuous at best. But now, two years and two high-profile reality flops later, it’s clear that there’s another local truth that the burgeoning population of D.C.-oriented reality producers have yet to figure out: Washington, D.C., is actually Washington and D.C. The latter features a lifestyle similar to that of other reality-worthy cities. But the former—with its white marble and its mysterious corridors of powers—is what these shows try to present.
It’s a classic bait-and-switch. In reality D.C., everyone who steps into a Cadillac Escalade might wind up sharing canapés with Al Franken at a reception for the Finnish finance minister. In real D.C., even Kal Penn-caliber celebs find themselves balanced out by slack-jawed number crunchers, dumpy lobbyists, and disillusioned activists hustling opaque, fine-print agendas.
In other words, despite the establishing shots of the Capitol and the increasingly pathetic cameos from attention-seeking federal-city figures, what reality TV producers have chosen as their locale is not a nexus of power and celebrity, but a nest of normalcy. And as one reality TV producer recently told Esquire when asked about the increase in scripted reality TV shows, “Normal people don’t make good television.”
Especially when their ZIP code seems to turn on the inner civics teacher in even the most down-market reality-TV peddler.
The first of the Obama-era D.C. reality excursions was the granddaddy of them all: MTV’s Real World, which announced its plans to shoot in D.C. back when Obamamania was in full flower. The results: the worst ratings in the 23-year history of the venerable program.
You could blame Obama’s rough start for the flop, but a better culprit might be the show’s own sanctimonious ambitions. Real World creator Jon Murray, who told a reporter for RealScreen magazine prior to the premiere that the season would focus on “young people…in D.C. trying to make change.”
Murray should know better than anyone else that world-historic change is not why people watch the Real World. People watch the Real World for relatable schadenfreude: Davis calling housemate Tyrie a “nigger who wants to kill me” in the Denver season; Stephen slapping Irene across the face after she suggested he was gay during the Seattle season; Ruthie’s unhinged alcoholism on Real World Hawaii. That’s good reality TV.
Murray’s bet that youthful viewers would embrace an homage to Obama’s Washington was likely based on the assumption that many of them voted for the man. He housed the cast—which included a former “Obama delegate”—in progressive Dupont Circle, landed the liberal castmembers internships at the Human Rights Campaign and the Washington Blade, and then sat back to wait for critics to herald the show’s thoughtful new approach to reality programming.
The wide-eyed-do-gooder version of the Real World debuted like a wet fart at a Politics and Prose book-reading.
“Despite once being groundbreaking, genre-defining television, the Real World is now a sad parody of its former self,” declared Andy Dehnart, the founder of RealityBlurred.com and a journalism professor at Stetson University. “With the D.C. season, the producers attempted to balance the stupid orgy of drinking, fighting, and hooking up with something less superficial: jobs with some consequence. But that just made it seem even more superficial.”
Five of the six least-watched seasons in the show’s long history occurred during the D.C. season. The finale pulled in a puny 1.1 million viewers. (Better seasons regularly reeled in more than 4 million viewers for premieres and finales.)
During filming, a cottage industry of blogs and Twitter feeds cropped up in D.C. to track the whereabouts of cast members. The deluge of first-hand reporting before the show ever aired might have represented good publicity. But it also revealed the truth about the supposedly hip city that hosted the show: We may be nonchalant about seeing Chuck Schumer at CVS, but when it comes to bona fide tee-vee characters, we’re as excited as the Palookaville Chamber of Commerce.
“The most interesting part of the whole season was the obsessive online coverage of the production before the show even aired. MTV should have just aired that,” Dehnart wrote.
Perhaps even the producers sensed the project was losing its edge: That’s one plausible explanation for why MTV broke its no-violence rule and declined to kick out a male cast member who drunkenly assaulted a female castmate. You can imagine the suits realizing, with horror, that nobody gives a shit about a house full of twentysomethings working for social consciousness in a city full of twentysomethings working for social consciousness.
The Real World’s current season is set in New Orleans. Ratings are up. Discussions of legislative procedure are down. And the bombastic personalities of Real World seasons past are back: Jemmye, the Christian-turned-pothead, McKennzie, the sorority girl who “knows how to use her sexuality to get what she wants,” and Preston, a gay black man who gets back at a homophobic housemate by using the latter’s toothbrush to clean the toilet.
Despite his fecal antics, Preston dreams of one day being a television host. Hope-filled youths in the land of filibuster reform, they ain’t.
After the Real World, it didn’t take long for reality to return to Washington. And if any show seemed like it could display a savvy understanding of how to channel D.C., it was this: Top Chef, a program whose central element—food—is the sort of thing that can be judged on the transparent, empirical standards that TV producers have such a hard time applying to the capital city’s culture of power and influence.
Unfortunately, months before the show’s June 16 premiere, Bravo announced that D.C. notables like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough would make guest appearances on the show. Because nothing says culinary excitement like the host of Morning Joe.
Bravo didn’t exactly help the show, shuffling it to an unfamiliar time slot. But not even the program’s tenuous Obama connections (look, kids, it’s White House chef Sam Kass!) have protected Top Chef from critical boos. “Even as it reaches out for the waning glint of Obamaglow that gave the city a starry allure, ‘Top Chef D.C.’ feels a day late and a dollop short,” wrote The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever.
A day late? How about a year. Top Chef’s stale taste comes from the fact that it began airing in June 2010—as opposed to, say, June 2009 or, better yet, June 2008. What’s the difference? Health care reform, financial regulatory reform, tea parties, the deficit, the debt, the Gulf Coast, the collapse of climate legislation. Or as political pros like to call it: Reality. Of course, even if national pols had sky-high ratings on the policy front, there’s still only so much folks like Mark Warner—junior Democratic senator from Virginia and a guest one recent episode—can do on the entertainment front.
The spectacle of Scarborough, Warner, Center for American Progress President John Podesta, and Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski savoring a genuine D.C. power lunch represents a mammoth come-down for Top Chef. When the show films elsewhere, its local-notable guests come from the creative class and dine out in challenging establishments. The magazine editors and fashion scenesters may not all be culinary gurus, but there’s a flamboyance to them, and a certain facility when it comes to discussing food. In the D.C. season, though, the guests are pulled from the political class. And they find themselves eating at…The Palm.
And instead of touting the joint’s trendy or challenging recipes, the show’s narration explains that the premise for setting an episode in the 19th Street NW outpost of a national chain restaurant is that this is where “deals are made” and “bills are brokered.” With great power lunches, it seems, comes great responsibility: “A good meal can make things go more smoothly.”
No one ever asked Jacques Pépin for his thoughts on regulatory reform. And there’s a reason America doesn’t turn to its permanent political establishment for opinions on creative cuisine. Apparently, someone forgot to administer them even rudimentary instructions about food judging. Among the deep thoughts about food and drink from the D.C. Top Chef power lunchers were pensees such as this one, from Scarborough: “I don’t know that I’m a foam man.” Or this, from Warner: “It needed more zest.”
It almost made Podesta look like a think-tank James Beard when he uttered a simple, declarative, and comprehensible sentence about his meal. “It could’ve been cooked more,” the former White House chief of staff said.
The aspiring-chef contestants, meanwhile, might well have been spitting in someone’s soup. As the assembled Beltway big-shots dine, Angelo, the show’s most calculating and love-em-or-hate-em contestant, explains that he’s “not too familiar with the concept of a power lunch.” At this point, who can blame him?
Real Housewives launches this week. But so far this summer, the one local reality show to have made a significant splash is D.C. Cupcake, which follows the rather boring exploits of Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne, the owners of Georgetown Cupcake on M Street NW. Thanks to the show, lines outside the store twisted down the block even as thermometers hit 100 degrees last month.
D.C. Cupcakes is saccharine and premeditated, heavy on shots of frosting, light on actual conflict. But the nice thing about the show is that it actually originated here, which means it’s not an established franchise that’ll need to lure in some obscure senator to gain an infusion of Washingtonian ambiance. The show’s minor dramas—the need to fill large orders of baked goods for charity events, etc.—are exactly what they’d be if the Kallinis and LaMontagne had opened their shop in Houston or Seattle. The network announced this week that the series would be picked up for a second season.
The only people who want more official Washington in D.C. Cupcake, it seems, are members of the national political class. In the sort of breathless celeb story that gives the lie to the idea that hometown D.C. is any different than any other town, Politico this spring used an article on the new show to ask its stars whether they ever sold cupcakes to any, like, famous political people. Of course, said Kallinis. “We don’t call them out and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s you!’ But we do have a lot of senators, congressmen and people in the administration that come in to the store.”
Would all of the D.C.-based reality programs—with their lobbying-group internships, their walk-ons by MSNBC contract players, and their enthusiastic coverage in the political press—have been green-lighted if John McCain and Sarah Palin had won in 2008? Considering how much of the 44th president’s reflected glamour the shows initially hoped to lap up, it’s hard to see how. But just as Obama’s former popularity wasn’t enough to save the Real World from bad ratings and bad reviews, it’s hard to blame the president for the consistent awfulness of TV’s take on the city he lives in.
The astonishing Salahis may yet prove that it’s possible to make a killer reality show in Washington. But the bigger problem with the genre is one that would transcend any administration and any political ideology: The unique thing about the Washingtonian social hierarchy is well-nigh impossible to present in dramatic form, either scripted or unscripted, no matter how many Nancy Pelosi cameos you arrange, no matter how many cupcakes get sold to unnamed senators.
In locales where the ins and the outs are separated by beauty or money or fashion sense, it’s easy to show who’s up and who’s down—and to portray the pathetic, desperate, and oddly compelling strivings of the wannabes striving to rule trashy New Jersey exurbia or New York fashion. D.C. has plenty of folks who lust for the status that accompanies wealth or sex appeal or a secure spot in a trendy business. But the producers who come here insist on also trying to present the city’s other, ineffable hierarchy, the one involving the ever-changing currencies of power or influence of proximity. That’s a contest lacking any empirical way to measure the winners and the losers.
The only reality that remains: The minute you want to be on such a show, you’re already a loser.