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In D.C., it is not ‘Housewives’ as usual

When “The Real Housewives of D.C.” premiered in August, it was riding the coattails of one of the most notorious — and most-watched — seasons of the Bravo franchise, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” And it had a pre-premiere publicity train led by the antics of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the infamous White House state dinner gatecrashers.

The latest iteration of the successful Bravo show seemed destined to be a pop-culture phenom, much as its predecessors were, with its stars poised to transform themselves into money-making brands via self-help books, inane pop songs and endorsement deals.

But, just as the drama onscreen is muted, the deafening buzz one might expect to surround the ladies of the Beltway isn’t so ear-splitting.

The series, which wraps its first season on Thursday, stars five Washingtonian women: Salahi, a model and socialite, and the most likely to appear as tabloid fodder; Catherine “Cat” Ommanney, a British interior designer who enjoys bragging about her (at the time) “well-known White House photographer” husband; Mary Schmidt Amons, who oversees two D.C-based charities and has five children; Lynda Erkiletian, a mother of four children who owns a modeling agency; and Stacie Turner, a real estate agent.

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The D.C. drama is slightly more sophisticated. There are no mentions of “prostitution whores,” as on the New Jersey edition. Weaves and/or wigs haven’t being yanked (New Jersey and Atlanta). Questionable breakdowns on vacation getaways are nowhere to be seen ( New York City). And tanning parties aren’t on their radar (Orange County). The endless stream of lunches, parties, salon visits — and even arguments — are more low-key and generally less ostentatious than we’ve come to expect from the “Housewives” brand.

“The big difference with the ‘DC Housewives’ is that they’re a little more cerebral,” said Maria Diaz, a self-proclaimed “Housewives” scholar, who blogs about the franchise on BravoGossip.com. “It’s just very slow.... You don’t call up your girlfriends and say, ‘Oh, my God, did you see tonight’s episode?’ ”

Which raises the question: Can a franchise built on high drama and water-cooler (not to mention blog-cooler) chatter survive a tamer season?

The viewership seems to suggest the refined reality isn’t a total bust.

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Its August premiere drew 1.6 million viewers (1 million in the 18-49 demo), down slightly from its predecessor “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” which saw 1.7 million viewers tuning in for its debut in May 2009. “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which returned for a third season on Monday, brought in 2.4 million.

But stroll down the “Housewives” block, and the “D.C.” figure is hardly anemic: " Orange County” drew 430,000 in August of 2006, early in its first season; “Atlanta” garnered 656,000 in October of 2008; " New York City” brought in 824,000 when it debuted in March of 2008.

Diversifying the “Housewives” brand was the goal, according to Andy Cohen, senior vice president of original programming and development and host of the Bravo talk show “Watch What Happens Live.” “D.C. is not a place where people are going to town on each other,” Cohen said. “It has a different personality. We knew that when we went there. This is a smart show ... it’s got a great place in our galaxy of ‘Housewives.’ We want people to feel like they’re watching a ‘Housewives’ show, but we want each to be different. This one is just more quiet than the others … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

In reflecting on what initially attracted her to participate in the series, Amons admitted her hesitation, being familiar with some of the highly charged antics that have come to be synonymous with “Real Housewives.” But it was the assurance that this edition would be different that appealed to her.

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“Our producers approached us with a promise that this show was being cast to reflect D.C., and really women do not behave very poorly in D.C., generally speaking,” she said in an interview during a recent visit to L.A. “We have sort of a social decorum, especially in the social circles. Our local producers and the network assured us that the show was being cast to bring a more sophisticated level of drama to the viewers.”

Actual feedback about the bourgeois production is more tepid. Diaz notes that a recap of a “New Jersey” episode might receive 75 comments in two days on her blog, but one for ""Washington D.C.” might collect 12 in the same period. Over on New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, a recap of “New Jersey” could garner up to 46 comments; whereas a “D.C.” recap might peak in the mid-20s.

“I think viewers are watching out of habit,” Diaz said. “A lot of them think they want classy women and the fun family stuff, but if you really want to watch good TV, you watch ' Mad Men’ or ' Breaking Bad.’ You don’t watch ‘Real Housewives’ for smart, intelligent content. You talk to your friends about the hair-pulling and the spectacle … not about an event where a husband’s name was mispronounced.”

Cohen disagrees, contending that the “Real Housewives” brand aims to present women that reflect the wide range of female figures in America — and not all of them can be loud and flashy. Although no decision has been made on whether the D.C. installment will have a second season, Cohen said he foresees a return.

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“A show that is quiet can still be a big success,” Cohen said. “I think that’s a way to keep this franchise strong — bringing in new viewers who maybe didn’t like the other, more noisy cities. It’s in the same wrapper, but it’s a different piece of candy. If we give you more of the same, what’s the point?”

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com


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