Rarely in television is there a franchise that ignites as much continuous watercooler conversation -- and controversy -- as Bravo's The Real Housewives. While many may not admit the show is on their must watch list, the ratings belie the fact that it often is. For countless different reasons not only is it watched, but also dissected and debated with intensity. To me, it is one of the most fun, complex, and addictive shows on TV (but I'm biased).
The Real Housewives series presents a slice of life amongst affluent women living large in a defined region of our country. When we decided to extend The Real Housewives franchise to Washington, DC, the country had just elected its first African-American President. In a time of great change for the country and DC, we were increasingly interested in exploring the nexus of politics, society and race among women and how, in Washington, the proximity of political power seemingly dictates where one fits within Beltway society.
Early last year we found five intriguing women whose relationships with each other, and with the city in which they live, were the perfect combination for this exploration. We tapped into the life force of Washington with the wife of a White House photographer; a Harvard-educated African American fundraiser; a born and raised Washingtonian whose grandfather Arthur Godfrey was a broadcasting legend; a successful entrepreneur; and a model and founder of D.C.'s America's Polo Club. We knew this was going to expose a different social commentary from our other Housewives series -- provocative and engaging in a whole new way. My fantasy was that our group of Housewives would disagree -- ok, maybe even fight -- about politics. This was to be a new breed of Housewives.
The great advantage to a docu-series, rather than a scripted drama or comedy, is the unexpected. The axiom 'truth is stranger than fiction' reigns supreme at Bravo. But therein lies the rub: you can't predict or prepare for the unknown. And that was the case in November, when late in our production cycle Michaele Salahi told producers that she and her husband Tareq had been invited to the White House State Dinner. The production crew filmed the Salahis' preparation and arrival at the White House gate, but left as the crew wasn't credentialed for the Dinner.
We learned the following day -- as did everyone else, including the other D.C. Housewives -- of the alleged "gate crashing" incident. At the core of the reaction was the question of whether or not the Salahis had been invited. But one of the by-products of the aftermath was continued false reporting that somehow the Salahis had used the State Dinner as a 'stunt' to be cast on the show. The fact is that by November we had been shooting the series with Michaele and the other women for months. In fact, we were a few weeks away from wrapping photography on the series. Any idea that attending the State Dinner was an audition to cement participation in the show is preposterous.
It is the job of the legal system to decide if and how the Salahis may have broken the law. But our decision to include them in the series speaks to a very basic programming mandate, which is to present real people as they exist within their universe. Meaning, we do not editorialize on their actions, how they raise their kids, live their lives, spend their money or treat their friends. We show them as they are, with awareness but without judgment. We let them be themselves, and let the audience draw their own conclusions, and -- like with real relationships -- sometimes the way people feel about a Housewife changes throughout the season. Whatever the feeling, we leave it to the viewer to decide. I think that's one of the reasons why people are so obsessed with not only the Housewives franchise, but virtually every other show on Bravo and why the shows are so compelling. Viewers tend to find something relatable, aspirational, comparable, and familiar, as they compare themselves or their lives to those onscreen. And, it frequently happens that the greatest satisfaction comes from simply being able to say, "I would never do that!"
We kept Michaele in the show because she has a compelling life story, distinct relationships with the other women, and most especially because she represents a very real example of the inextricably intertwined worlds of political connections with social hierarchy. To the people who might excoriate us and say we're making Michaele famous or glorifying what she did: 'here's what' -- we don't make shows to make people famous and as a corollary, we don't view being on a television show either as a reward or a punishment. That's up to the individuals who choose to do so and the people who choose to watch and react.
What happened at the White House plays out towards the end of our series, as it occurred towards the end of our production cycle. But the stories that unfold in the months before are as compelling -- if not more so. Michaele is one of the many characters whose lives intersect in the series and in real life; it would be unfair and unjust to the other women to say that the drama surrounding the Salahis is the focal point of the show; a lot happens, and it is riveting television.
So, before you judge this show, I hope you watch an episode. It is as distinctive from The Real Housewives of the OC, New York, Atlanta, and New Jersey as the geographic locations themselves. This series features the same great storytelling and strong women with an exceptionally raw and revealing narrative. We could not have possibly imagined what would happen next. We still can't.
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