D.C.: Where Reality TV Comes to Die Think the new Housewives season stinks? Blame Washington.

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Illustrations by Brooke Hatfield

“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.

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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.

Our Readers Say

Hilarious and a great read Mike!
That shameless, social climbing, I will do anything to be famous, dead-beat wants you to "Come join DC’s MOST FABULOUS Magazine, star of Real Housewives of DC/Commander in Chic – MICHAELE SALAHI and invited cast members of the Real Housewives of DC, OC, Atlanta, New York and New Jersey as we welcome the newest member of the Real Housewives franchise." Does that mean some cast members weren't invited? I wonder how the other cast members feel about MIssy Salahi's self-proclaimed title of "Star." Join our Facebook page: Tell the White House Party Crashers to Go Away
http://www.facebook.com/WhiteHousePartyCrashers
Great read. You nailed it.
The remedy to dry tv in the district: to borrow a line from Palin, film it in the "real" dc. real housewives in trinidad.
Black people and white people don't go to the same salons cuz a) white barbers don't know how to cut/style black hair. b)you go to the black barbershop for the gossip & the experience.
LOL on the not freaking out at seeing politicians. I loved when I lived on Capitol Hill and one of my neighbors would stroll by and friends would freak out that it was senator so-and-so. Anyone who knows them all on sight needs a better hobby!
Well, even bottle blonds have more fun! Yes, we the taxpayers paid for the people working the night that La La Salahi and her escort used the White House for her career boost. Bravo to NBC Universal! How about a real Reality Show for WDC - Afghanistan... show the 2 dollar makeshift bombs that blow up our young soldiers and their million dollar armored vehicles..Perhaps, NBC could provide some blond bombshells to add interest?
The (kinda hot?) jerk on 'Top Chef' is Angelo, not Alessandro - but this was super.
Great piece, and I co-sign with most of the points made. As a native Washingtonian, I was looking forward to both Real World: DC and Top Chef: DC, but both have been pretentious, boring duds. And last night's RHoDC was simultaneously dull and a complete trainwreck. (Oddly, Michaele was one of the more likable women on the show.)

You guys do need a better copy editor, though. "Desperate Housewives," referenced in your title, is a whole different show. And "Five of the six least-watched seasons in the show’s long history occurred during the D.C. season." Huh?
Further evidence that WCP is the best read in town. Prose items like this are why it was so easy to let my New Yorker subscription lapse.
Anyone in DC with a little genuine influence wouldn't be the least interested in wasting time in front of the camera for a 'reality show'. (That's what they do in that silly place called California.)

Virginia has always been the New Jersey of DC to me.

That Ms. Amons thinks she "has access" because she knows someone who knows someone strikes me as lacking in self awareness. (Hey! Amons is Snoma backwards!)

But hey, who am I? I just happen to be a fictional character that turned up in Who's Who In Washington. Though I don't exist, I managed to get a writeup. Now whats that supposed to mean?

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