"Real Housewives of D.C.": Finally over. What it taught us about reality TV
So now we come to the end of "The Real Housewives of D.C." It was Washington's first major encounter with reality TV. (No, we don't count "Top Chef" or "Real World" and their out-of-town-visitor casts.) What, exactly, have we learned?
That drama is hard to sustain when national headlines have given away the plot. That most political types want nothing to do with the cameras, though a few are game. That the stars of these shows aren't just caricatures but real people, with real feelings, easily hurt. And that a lot of what you, the viewer, saw on TV the past two months? Well, a lot of it was kind of fake. That's right, reality TV doesn't comport with reality. We tried to warn our fellow citizens, but now that the first (and perhaps final) season has come and gone, let's examine the wreckage.
It had seemed their chance for superstardom, but ultimately "Real Housewives" was not kind to Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Again and again, producers allowed the horse-country socialites to spout about their supposedly charmed and glamorous life, only to sharply undercut them: The next scene would be other Housewives gossiping that the Salahis "aren't paying their bills" or an image of withered, fruitless vines at his parents' Oasis Winery
In some ways, the series actually helped to prop up the jet-set image the Salahis dearly wanted to project: It showed them staying in luxury hotel rooms -- including the $15,000-a-night suite at the Four Seasons where Oprah Winfrey once lodged -- without acknowledging that a reality star can get that kind of treatment comped in exchange for the TV exposure. The many-gabled country home where the Salahis appear to live on the show is not theirs, but a friend's; "Housewives" never exposed that illusion either.
But the show also played into the savvy viewer's understanding that the couple's wild ride was about to end in scandal at the White House. In one scene, Michaele chided another Housewife's daughter for posting incriminating stuff on Facebook -- "If you're out there doing crazy things, it's going to come back." But that line's only funny if you recall the giddy photos with Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel that the Salahis posted online after they managed to get into a state dinner without an invitation.
In a riveting scene aired last week, "Housewives" became a reality show about a reality show. The cameras followed the Salahis primping for the state dinner at a Georgetown salon. And we didn't just see Michaele searching in vain for her invitation (non-existent, according to the White House) -- we also saw and heard a producer reminding her what she was looking for. We know the feeling! What were we looking for here?
It was the first time that Bravo had shown us the mechanics at work. What was that about? Mostly just good TV, said Abby Greensfelder, of Half Yard Productions. "There's a level of surprise to see some rawness to this show," she said. "It just makes it interesting."
* * * * *
A few codicils to the "Housewives" code:
·Whenever characters are seen dining or drinking out, the restaurant's facade and sign must get a courtesy shot, so we know where they are.
·Whenever one character calls another, it must be on speaker, preferably through a tiny cellphone held in the upraised palm of the hand as if blowing a kiss.
·In every episode, someone must remind viewers that we are in Washington and articulate its rules: "D.C., has a special etiquette: As a host or hostess, you are responsible for taking care of your guests"... "In Washington, you try not to let politics get personal"... "In D.C., there is a certain standard of integrity that you must demonstrate, otherwise you're not going to make it." (We didn't say the rules are accurate.)
* * * * *
One scene of "Housewives" was set at a reception hosted by lobbyist Edwina Rogers -- a strangely underpopulated affair. We're told that she got a good turnout but that many of her guests hid in the hallway, reluctant to be caught on camera. Certainly there are reputations to uphold in D.C.; did that make it a difficult place to film a reality show? Not especially, said Greensfelder: "Everywhere that we shoot, there are always going to be people who want to be on TV and people who don't want to be on TV."
"Housewives" often had to stretch to convey any sense of official Washington: Photojournalist Charles Ommanney, husband of star Cat Ommanney, was frequently described as a "White House photographer" as if he were on staff there, with scant mention of his employer, Newsweek. The show's next biggest get was a cameo by Bo Obama's trainer. But two bona fide politicians did agree to step in front of the camera: D.C. Council member David Catania, who used his camera time to advocate for gay marriage; and Virginia state Del. David Albo, in a brief scene discussing winery regulations with the Salahis. (It was real business, he told us, not just for the cameras.)
* * * * *
A close viewing of the show revealed that producers took huge liberties with chronology. Parties, conversations, conflicts were often replayed wildly out of the order in which they occurred in real life.
Some of this you'd only know if you were, say, a columnist who had chronicled nearly every time Half Yalf filmed around town. But there were other giveaways, like the mysteries of Cat Ommanney's bangs. In most scenes the sharp-tongued Brit wore her hair in a perfect blonde fringe along her brow. Then, in the same sequence, we'd see her again, forehead magically exposed, her bangs completely grown out. Or there was the weather: One minute the Housewives were in snow, the next, frolicking under the sun and leafy trees.
Such discrepancies exposed the show's fundamental trickery: When Ommanney (without bangs) talked gloomily about her husband, it was actually months later, when she had the hindsight that comes with an imminent divorce. (The couple separated this spring, months after the bulk of filming ended.) And when the Housewives whispered about "rumors" regarding the Salahis, it was actually transpiring in snowy December, after the White House incident -- and after the media stories that revealed their financial morass -- none of which had happened yet in the show's murky chronology. (You follow? Bravo doesn't want you to, apparently.)
Should this bother anyone? Greensfelder defended the sly editing as the only way to weave together disparate stories in a way that is "authentic to these women in their lives."
OK, so that was the explanation; here's the excuse: "It's an entertainment," she said. "It's not a news program."
The Reliable Source
| October 8, 2010; 1:03 AM ET
Categories: Real Housewives of D.C., White House crashers
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