As new Housewives divide and conquer D.C., we just don't get 'Real' anymore

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; E01

Every word of the title is wrong, except "the" and "of."

Real: What can that even mean anymore?

Housewives: Remember when that bordered on slur? The surgically taut eyes of certain Real Housewives must ache from wink-winking every time Bravo has them say the name of the show.

Here it's an empowering noun, housewife, a category of women with giant kitchens who nevertheless appear to take all their meals at enormous-stemware restaurants that always seem to be seating them and their camera crews in backrooms, under the guise of exclusivity, but perhaps safely away from real people. (The home kitchen, that ancient, hearthy symbol of oppression and chores, is useful to Real Housewives only when, say, "Janet Jackson's personal chef" is coming by for an exclusive cooking tutorial: how to marinate in your own sauce.)

Finally, the word D.C.: Always the ultimate artificial no place, adhering to no map or agreed-upon boundary, having nothing to do with the greater Washington area where many of us live and work normally, having nothing to do even with the "Washington" glimpsed in our many glossy society magazines, but nevertheless serving as a surreal backdrop for the newest of Bravo's five permutations of "The Real Housewives" true-life soap opera.

"The Real Housewives of D.C." will premiere Thursday night at 9, which you would know if you weren't hiding under a rock.

And, oh, look at how many of you are trying to hide under that rock. We lift the rock and you hiss, Please, no more "Real Housewives"!! Your cries are heard and tactfully ignored, and I sympathize that "D.C." can, in this case, stand for "don't care." So, higher minds, I beg you not to watch. I invite you to come over so we can drink forlornly and not watch it together -- or at least so we can trick ourselves into watching it "intellectually," trying once again to answer the question: Who the [bleep] are these people? What woman in her right mind would submit to this charade?

Bravo, a network that has recently deteriorated from making harmless fun to making transgressive trash, has answers: These people would and did submit to it, because they are starved for attention, saturated in narcissism. Aren't they just horrible? the network seems to ask, with the zeal of the guy who runs the back-alley dogfight. Later, on his postmortem cocktail talk show, "Watch What Happens Live," the network's vice president, Andy Cohen, will try to make it all better.

Or make it all worse? The network seems content only when its Housewives are at one another's throats, which makes more people watch. Not long into the first hour of "Real Housewives of D.C.," some initial battle lines are drawn. A fashionable androgyne, Paul Wharton, acts quickly to gin up some ill will between two of the women, betraying confidences with the sassy snap of a finger. Underneath it all is this strange vibe: We cannot have a TV show that women will watch unless it involves women devaluing other women. That seems to be the gold mine now.

I used to think Bravo had purer intent -- a mission to develop morality plays that covertly teach people (women and men, young and old) how not to behave. Could "Real Housewives" be less a soap opera and more a Miss Manners column come to life? Perhaps once, but not now. Now I think of the Housewives -- all seasons -- as hideous parts of the same monster.

* * *

In a just world, the first episode of "The Real Housewives of D.C." -- the most awkwardly contrived of the franchise so far -- would signal the inevitable sinking of the ship. The women in it are all trying too hard, and not just the margarine blonde who became infamous for trying the hardest. (More on her in a minute.)

"The Real Housewives of D.C." features four others, who will never get as much attention: There is Mary Schmidt Amons, 43, of McLean, who prevents her drop-out/drop-in daughter from raiding her walk-in closet by securing it with a Langley-grade biometric lock. There is Stacie Scott Turner, a 42-year-old real estate mogul attempting to embody what she senses are the bourgie ideals of Obama-era elitism, instantly offended by one housewife's inebriated declaration that it's time for white and black women to go to the same hair salons, and offended by another's tipsy impression of Tyra Banks.

There is 52-year-old Lynda Erkiletian (and her boyfriend, Ebong), who reminds us one time too many that she runs the most important modeling agency in Washington, which is like me telling you I make the best lobster roll in Tulsa. There is Catherine "Cat" Ommanney, 40-ish, a recent arrival from Lun-dunn, blithely acquainting herself with Yank customs -- gee, did she pick the wrong way to go about that. (Unless the joke's on us, and she's from Oxford, extensively researching our cultural waste; or she's an MI6 agent sent to reclaim the colonies.)

And then there's the problem of 44-year-old Michaele Salahi. After the evasive talk-show appearances, after pleading the Fifth during Hill testimony, now, at last, after so much foreplay, here she is on the long-awaited "Real Housewives."

Viewers may be struck by the voice more than anything else. You expect Michaele to sound "blonde" and singsongy, and instead you get the voice of 10,000 nights in a smoky bar -- something sultry and Bukowski, but something barky, too; a malnourished lap dog shut off in the laundry room, yapping itself hoarse. "There is a whole lot of substance here," Michaele says about herself, with a manic glint in her eyes. I watch her and think of an old fembot factory, and the ones that went haywire in beta.

This one disguised her defects, embedded herself in Virginia horse country, married rich (or rich-ish) and got on "Real Housewives." It's been seven months since Michaele and her husband, Tareq, brazenly crashed a White House state dinner and thus ensured their inclusion on this TV show. (Bizarrely and metaphorically, that act signaled for me the close of 9/11-era seriousness; it was the final sacrilege, the end of Washington, of grown-ups, of manners, of the capital ideal.)

* * *

The actual episodes of "The Real Housewives of D.C." are rendered irrelevant, as if they arrived too late. The show is an afterthought nobody needs to actually watch; the White House debacle is clearly reserved for the season's climax, weeks from now. The producers, who claim innocence, could not have made a luckier choice than Michaele. From the first episode, the show builds its case, providing her all the rope she needs. We get just a hint of the Salahis' debts and business squabbles -- which have been exhaustively reported by The Washington Post. Local viewers will already know of the iffy finances of the championship polo match the Salahis stage each summer.

"A goat rodeo," sniffs Lynda. It's the best line in the first episode, which is mostly just sad.

Why is it sad?

It's sad because of everything that got us to this point. It's sad because of how little we ever see of "real" women on television; it's easy to look around at our culture and feel that the scales have tipped, and more people are pretending to star in their own reality shows, supplying their own cameras. You can find a goat rodeo anywhere there's a little affluence.

It's also sad because Real Housewives don't just harmlessly remain on the back end of cable. Like animals in a zoo cage, they fling their latest products at us: their dumb Housewife memoirs and self-help books; their cheap Housewife "fashion" lines fresh off the Chinese freighter; their Auto-Tuned Housewife pop songs, which only denigrate the form. The amount of energy spent talking about "Real Housewives" in no way lines up with Bravo's relatively meager ratings.

Finally, it's sad because these Housewives are women, not teenage girls -- though their actions often obscure that fact. Blindfolded by their own opportunism, they willingly jump into this volcano, and some of us are watching too giddily at the human sacrifice. We've watched the Orange County women devolve and bicker about emotional boo-boos. (Then adulthood intrudes: One got evicted from her condo in a Great Recession mise-en-scene.) We watched the New York women sneer at one another so much that they lost track of whom to hate. We watched the Atlanta women lower themselves to ugly stereotypes the culture has shoved on them. We watched the New Jersey women overturn tables and brawl. The weak among us clicked on fabulously layered episode recaps on innumerable blogs; clicked on gossip items promising details of Housewife divorces, bankruptcies, foreclosures.

I want to believe that there can be more to these women -- that what we see is simply based on reality, and when there are not cameras around, their lives are not only more bland but more coherent and meaningful. It's a mush of unsatisfied emotions: feeling sorry for them and yet falling into the trap of judging them and delighting in their miseries.

But the thrill has waned. The overall effect is one of mutual contempt -- the Housewives hate one another, and the women who watch decide which woman they hate the most and which woman they hate the least. Men who like to watch women fight tune in, too, and the circle is thus complete: "The Real Housewives" imparts a sinking feeling that it's made by and for people who can't stand women.

The Real Housewives

of D.C.

(one hour) premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.

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