Business cards flashed from manicured hands. Drinks swirled and clinked. Well-dressed 20-somethings chatted about their jobs on the Hill and stole glances at their smartphones.
It looked just like many a D.C. happy hour, but this one was entirely fake. The martinis were water; the well-coiffed conversationalists were actors; the dim evening ambiance was created by blackout curtains that blocked the 10 a.m. sunshine from streaming in.
The one aspect of the made-for-TV scene this week that was entirely real? Unlike so many television shows, which claim to show the White House and the Capitol without ever filming near Washington, this show stars the District of Columbia as itself.
It’s called “Districtland.”
“Everyone watches shows about D.C. already,” said producer Russell Max Simon, mentioning “House of Cards,” “Veep,” “Scandal” and others on a long list of television series that glamorize the political wheeling and dealing in the halls of Congress and the White House. “This is a side of D.C. that they haven’t seen.”
“Districtland” focuses on the day-to-day lives of five young people living together in a house in Columbia Heights — young adults who have no power, though they might strive to have some one day. Filled with boozy nights and Tinder dates, their lives are more “Animal House” than “Alpha House.”
Members of the production team plan to debut the pilot at the D.C. Independent Film Festival in March. They hope to attract investments so they can film the five additional episodes they have written, then eventually get the show on the air, bringing scenes of the District to audiences nationwide.
The show is low-budget — $4,675 raised, exceeding an online fundraising goal — and the show’s nine actors, although they are professionals with some credits to their names, won’t attract any paparazzi as they walk the streets of Petworth or Dupont Circle.
The half-hour pilot wrapped up filming Monday, with the Coupe bar in Columbia Heights as the setting for the final scene.
Director of Photography Aidan Gray — an 18-year-old cinematography whiz who graduated from Montgomery County’s Churchill High School this year and already has a few years of professional experience — hung lights that transformed the bar into a television show set.
Director K.W. Kuchar ordered around the 20 to 30 unpaid extras who had volunteered to spend the day at the bar. “What does your hair look like under the hat?” he asked one extra briskly.
The man removed his hat. “Hat’s out,” Kuchar declared.
“How many of you have a water bottle? Wherever there’s a water bottle, I need it to turn into a bar glass, and I need it to go away,” he said. He reminded the crew of the importance of continuity: “Once they have a drink, it should be the same drink all the time, every time.”
“Districtland” began as a play at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival. Simon optioned the script from playwright Cristina Bejan and reworked it into a pilot episode.
Simon said that creating a show that promises to speak broadly about the large, diverse population of the District is challenging. Since he began working on the show, people have been telling him, “I hope you portray” this, or “I hope you portray” that.
“It’s a subject, I think, fraught with peril, anytime you decide to write about ‘the real D.C.,’ ” he said.
The five main characters of Districtland are in their 20s. They include a Rhodes Scholar, a Georgetown lawyer, a consultant and a congressional staffer. They live in a neighborhood with a historically large black population, yet none of the five are black.
Kuchar, a resident of the District since 2003, said the crew was aware of that.
He said the show had been “moving crews from one quadrant to another” to capture the diversity of the region. But it wasn’t until a reporter pointed out that all the filming locations were in Northwest — with the exception of a house in Silver Spring — that he seemed to note that much of the District was not included.
In a few sentences during a final argument in the pilot, the characters in the show voice awareness of the tensions inherent in the District’s booming, changing population.
“There are big themes in the show about gentrification and the clash between people who are pushing native D.C. residents out to the suburbs, and race, and income inequality. Those are all part of the show,” Simon said. He attributed that consciousness, in large part, to Claire Douglass, a 31-year-old D.C. native who has provided a local’s voice in the writer’s room.
Douglass, whose recollections date to her days at Murch Elementary School and the evenings her father spent drinking cognac with former mayor Marion Barry, said she is protective about the District. When Gray, who lives in Rockville, claims to be “from D.C.,” “I’m like, ‘Shut up.’ ” Even Douglass’s husband, who has lived in the District for the past 30 of his 47 years, is not a true local in her eyes.
She said that when she went to college in Colorado, classmates told her that they didn’t know that anyone actually lived in the District — and, of course, they were completely unaware of the District’s frustrations, including its lack of congressional representation.
Someday, she said, that might not be true, and she hopes that “Districtland” might play a part. Someday, the youths of the rest of the country might turn on their televisions and see an authentic slice of the District of Columbia.