At first glance, Washington Heights is just another canned MTV docu-reality show starring whiny young adults complaining about “drama,” and saying ‘like’ too much. However, after a few episodes it becomes clear that this is no Jersey Shore substitute.
Set in the Heights, a mostly Dominican, low-income neighborhood in Manhattan, the show follows seven 20-something-year-olds in pursuit of their dreams. They are mostly of Dominican descent, and all but one of them are pursuing careers in the arts. Jonathan “Audobon” Perez, the primary narrator of the show, wants to be a rapper; Reyna Saldana, a singer; Frankie Reese is a spoken-word poet; Ludwin Federo recently earned his GED and is applying to art schools; Jimmy Caceres aspires to professional baseball; and Rico and Fred Rasuk are brothers who want to become actors and fashion designers, respectively.
What separates this reality series from others is the sense of community it creates, and how relatable the characters are. While Snookie and the Situation were far from models of ambition, Washington Heights seems full of heart and with a focus on real people pursuing real dreams in a practical way. The Dominican-American culture presented provides a familiarity for Latino viewers, especially when Spanish is spoken. It should be noted that the question of authenticity is an important one on a network with a bad rap of representing minority cultures.
MTV is no stranger to sensation and the first few episodes feature gossip and girls fighting. The content is obviously edited to create drama where there is little, and some of drama that does exists seems staged. If one can get past these obnoxious reality tropes, Washington Heights is watchable, even inspiring at times.
Washington Heights is an important departure from the privilege of The Housewives, or the exploitive nature of Honey Boo Boo. If anything positive can be said about this show, it’s that the issues the characters deal with are real. These kids work hard, have money issues, confrontations with the law, and struggle with their education; all issues people living in low-income areas deal with. Jimmy has been in jail for dealing drugs to make ends meet after his father was sent to prison. He now plays ball in an effort to escape the streets. Ludwin earns his GED and struggles with his little brother who is in prison at only 18. Meanwhile, every character deals with the regular anxiety of growing up, especially in an economy that leaves many with few options.
The jury is still out on Washington Heights. It is not the greatest thing on television, and it certainly doesn’t challenge its genre. However, it focuses on family, community, art, and culture, all of which are things that thrive in many communities of color, especially in the Heights. It’s a welcome change from the typical excess and ridiculous antics of most reality TV. It’s worth giving it a chance, but don’t expect to be amazed.