A viewer will with good reason cast suspicion upon the enterprise, after so many years of watching Andy Cohen’s Bravo sink (and then sink further) into formulaic conflict-choreography, its schedule dominated by reality shows lorded over by a bratty jester (Cohen) who gets his jollies from watching people (women, mostly) fight over petty, childish slights and misunderstandings.
The great news, however, is that “Welcome to Waverly” is a flat-out disaster for the cable network, in that most everyone involved gets along just fine and discovers that there’s a lot to like about one another beyond politics, race, sexual orientation and firmly held beliefs. What America is this?
Curtailed to just four episodes (all of which air this week, beginning Monday), “Welcome to Waverly” is certainly a success in my book — a thoughtfully executed and refreshingly hands-off reminder of reality TV’s original potential, back when shows hewed more closely to documentary principles and had an honest interest in the day-to-day lives of everyday people. Yes, there was such a strain of reality TV, in the early 2000s, which quietly distinguished itself from competition shows and fame-seeking displays. As everyone knows, it was overrun by Real Housewives, Bachelors, Bachelorettes, Kardashians, Total Divas and future U.S. presidents.
But once in a while, Bravo reverts to simpler times. Last year it ran a brief social experiment in which people stripped down to nothing and tried to live with zero possessions. “Welcome to Waverly” is a similar test, attempting to measure whatever small amount of goodwill remains between the twin stereotypes of President Trump’s America and the coastal elite.
The show, which was filmed in late 2017, is saved (or ruined, depending on your expectations) by the remarkably noble behavior of its producers and participants — not just the seven urbanites who live together, “Real World”-style, in a farmhouse, but also the Kansans with whom they’ve been assigned to work alongside.
The worst manners in the entire series come in the first episode, courtesy of airport security agents who delay Aswar Rahman, a budding politician from Minneapolis, just long enough to miss his flight to Kansas City, all because of his Muslim name and background.
Rahman takes it in stride and immediately begins shadowing Waverly’s longtime mayor, Craig Meader, peppering him with questions about demographics and the town’s potential. Rahman is concerned by Waverly’s projected population decline in coming decades; he offers to build the town a newer, hipper-looking website to attract newcomers.
Despite the misgivings of his mother, who worries that a black man won’t be safe in a place like Waverly (“What’s in Kansas?”), Chicago chef Lamar Moore finds he is warmly welcomed, particularly by a retired hog farmer named Doug who now has a thriving business as a barbecue-on-wheels caterer. Other success stories follow: L.A.-based celebrity hair stylist Zachary Morad, who is gay (but also Republican-ish), takes up a chair in Waverly’s lone beauty salon, as does Trenice Crawford, a former combat medic from Richmond who’s now “slayin’ nails.”
The show’s lack of tension won’t strike all viewers as commendable, especially those accustomed to Bravo-style catfights. A trip to watch a nearby Civil War reenactment goes about as problematically as one might expect (“I don’t know what I’m learning from this,” Moore says), but it’s really only marred by an attention-seeking, Confederate-uniformed blowhard who can’t resist the opportunity to mansplain the standard racist take on the Civil War for the camera (“It was not about slavery,” blah-blah).
The biggest blowup involves a night where the gang is invited to a house party and Brooklyn bartender Melissa Meier imbibes too much and mouths off at the locals for supporting Trump, which embarrasses her roommates. The morning after, she apologizes to everyone involved and they accept her apology.
That’s it? I would bet that the Bravo brass had the same reaction, and rather than stretch footage of one disagreement out over a couple or three episodes, “Welcome to Waverly” packs up and moves on, cutting its losses. (Not one table overturned? Not one drink thrown in anyone’s face?)
But take time anyhow to admire what was accomplished here: A group of Americans were asked to let down their guard and share their lives and ideas with one another. The locals get their digs in, but so do the urbanites. And nobody gets hurt. Blink and you’ll miss it, but what just blew past your TV screen might well be the kind of nation we all supposedly long to see.
Welcome to Waverly (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on Bravo; continues nightly through Part 4 on Thursday.