A review of Real Housewives of D.C.

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Aug. 3 2010 7:04 AM

The Power and the Pathos

A review of Real Housewives of D.C.

Real Housewives of Washington D.C. Click image to expand.
Michaele Salahi in Real Housewives of D.C.

There's something intrinsically depressing about the very premise of Real Housewives of Washington D.C.—even beyond the standard depressing-ness of the entire Bravo franchise about table-toppling, hair-pulling female nutjobs. It's not that the D.C. women are not sufficiently glamorous or embarrassing to gape at. In fact, if the premiere episode says anything about the capital, it's that women can get drunk and blurt out ambiguously racist things in swanky celebrity restaurants as easily here as they do it in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, or Orange County. But the striving in this version takes on a new, desperate edge we haven't yet seen.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

The real currency in Washington isn't money but "proximity to power," the first voiceover cautions us. And all the other Housewives, however crazy they may be, will at some level be at home with social status, great wealth, buckets of booze, and the possibility of being mistaken for their own 15-year-old daughters. But the D.C. Housewives crave something they will likely never even come near: power. And that makes the show painful, unless you are one of those people who actually enjoys watching Icarus get fried.

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These women want to be near the president. They want to be close to people who are employed by the president. They want to see hastily snapped mobile-phone images of the vice president in the backseat of a limo that may or may not also be carrying the president. And each time any one of these things happens, the Housewives all stop, gasp, and visibly pine. At an America's Polo Cup event, taking place at the base of the Washington Monument, conversation stops and eyes shoot raptly upward as one of the Housewives hisses, "Flyover."

Now, maybe something like that would happen if "Joey Bananas" Bonanno's limo were to roll by a birthday bash attended by the Real Housewives of New Jersey. But the sad reality of this new reality show is that, unlike the other Housewives, the five heroines chosen to star in this new series are never going to get close to their big dreams. Power has the potential to be more dignified, interesting, even more awesome than money. But a successful D.C. realtor, the founder of the "top modeling agency in D.C.," a broadcast legacy with a biometric lock on her clothes closet, someone (briefly) married to a Newsweek photographer (who appears also to have mauled Prince Harry at some juncture), and a gatecrasher-to-be-named later are going to come about as close to real Washington power as, say, the Real Housewives of Cape Canaveral will get to a moon walk. (Deep Throat was called Deep Throat for a reason. No great insights about the inner workings of D.C. ever emanated from someone nicknamed Deep Tissue Massage.)

So the new pack of Housewives are left to compete over their relative near-proximity to power: One of them cheerfully brags about which former president RSVP-ed to her wedding (and didn't attend). The fact that one of the cast members actually may have committed a felony to achieve a momentary brush with presidential power takes the show from the aspirational voyeurism at the heart of the reality show genre to an uneasy longing for pharmacological intervention.