A reality show that plops seven urbanites in small town, USA, brings to mind the predictable stereotypes: “city slicker” newcomers meet and clash with “local yocals.”
That small town, however, is about 90 miles southwest of Kansas City. And the residents of Waverly, Kan., defied expectations.
Bravo’s four-episode “Welcome to Waverly” (9 p.m. Monday through Thursday), features notably less disharmony than the table-flipping antics of “The Real Housewives of (Fill in the Blank).” And senior vice president of current production Ryan Flynn said that’s just fine.
“I’ve come to learn: never expect and be open to everything,” Flynn said in a recent phone interview. “I think we all had our expectations: Is the town going to be closed off and very suspicious? Are our incomers going to dig their feet in and not change? I have to say I was pleasantly surprised neither one of those extremes bore out the entire time.”
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There’s a bit of a “Real World” vibe to “Waverly” that comes from the seven-strangers picked-to-live-together-in-a-house conceit. It’s multiplied when the show explores how those strangers interact not just with one another, but also with the town’s residents.
The “incomers,” as the city transplants are called, include a real estate agent from Miami, a lesbian pastry chef, a Muslim politician, an African-American chef and an initially closeted Republican. They were found through a reality show casting company.
Flynn said Bravo always intended for the show, which began with the working title “Welcome to America,” to be set somewhere in Kansas.
“We love that great frontier spirit of Kansas and it’s smack dab in the middle of the country, the geographic center of the United States,” he said. “For a concept like this, if we’re talking about middle American, there’s no heart of America greater than Kansas.”
Flynn said producers began with a list of 78 potential Kansas towns ranging in population size from 600 to 2,000. The list was cut to 22 and then down to three or four. Producers visited the finalists, talked to town councils and held open Q&A sessions with residents.
“We didn’t want to pick a town where we’re like, ‘We’re coming, deal with it.’ It was very much about wanting to partner and for people to understand what we’re looking for and for us to get to know them and for them to get to know us,” Flynn said. “(Waverly) Mayor Craig (Meader), who is just a wonderful guy and a great character, was really a champion of this project all along. And we had producers on the ground six to eight weeks before we started shooting, building relationships with the townspeople.”
It was during that time producers cast the locals who would be paired with incomers who held similar jobs back home. Doug Henry, one of the locals cast in “Waverly,” said most people in town were either fine with the show or worried it would make them look like “a bunch of hicks.”
“I don’t know what you think we are but that’s what we are, a bunch of hicks,” Henry said, laughing. “We’re out here in the sticks.”
Henry said the production “stirred up the town a little bit” but once filming ended, folks didn’t give it much thought.
“A lot of the town embraced it but you’ve got a certain few, no matter what you do, they’re never going to be happy,” Henry said.
Waverly, with a population of 563, was chosen not just because it’s a small town where the residents are 99 percent white — presumably intended to be a culture shock for the multi-ethnic incomers — but because producers were able to find local entrepreneurs. They didn’t want the incomers working at a chain store or in dull-for-TV jobs (“You can be an amazing accountant but that’s maybe not the most visually stimulating thing for television,” Flynn said).
Pairing Chicago chef Lamar Moore, who is African-American, with Waverly food truck owner and former pig farmer Henry made sense.
“We went in thinking one thing but the reality was these people made connections I never would have expected,” Flynn said. “Doug and Lamar, I would not have said those two would spark and they sparked immediately over their shared love of food, their love of family and faith.”
Henry, who grew up in Seneca, Kan., has lived in Waverly for 20 years. He spent most of that time overseeing 20,000 head of hogs until a few years ago, when he went out on his own with his Hog Man BBQ food truck. He currently runs a Friday night circuit, selling barbecue out of the truck in Burlington, Kan., the first and third Fridays of the month, Waverly the second Friday and Garnett on the fourth Friday.
Henry said he was interviewed by producers a few times before he was selected to be paired with an incomer.
“My wife told me right from the start she don’t want no part of the show, but I’m always open for adventure,” Henry said, noting he never saw much conflict in town during production.
“I enjoyed every one of them,” he said of the city transplant. “They were unique people but I don’t think they was that much different from us. Their lifestyle in a big city was just different from ours. I think our life is a very simple life. We don’t have a bunch of commotion and people honking at you because you ain’t going or whatever.”
The differences in political persuasion, skin color and sexual orientation didn’t faze Henry either, who said Moore was the first black Santa Claus in Waverly.
“God created them all and I think everybody is unique,” Henry said. “I take each person as an individual and I always look for the good in people and I don’t look for the bad. I thought they were great.”
Moore, a former contestant on Food Network’s “Chopped” who is preparing to open a Southern-themed restaurant, The Swill Inn, in Chicago, said he and Henry clicked. Moore had never worked in a food truck and saw that opportunity as a new learning experience.
“The other big piece I could tell is Doug has a really strong background as a father, as a husband, and for me as a young African-American adult growing up with no father, I wanted to try to peer into him as much as I could to see how we could collaborate in life outside of food,” Moore said.
Henry said Moore bonded with his two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Kip, whom Henry would often bring along when production called.
“Usually they called early in the week and they’d say, ‘We need you on this day and this day,’ and maybe not tell you exactly what you’re gonna do but give you some idea,” Henry said. “I used to get on ’em because they weren’t organized and all of a sudden they’d want to do something. … They’d say, ‘We need you here in an hour’ or something and my deal was, I was hanging out with Kip. So either I bring Kip or I ain’t coming. There’s only so many things you can change in your life.”
While there are some conflicts with locals in the series — the incomers were shocked by some of the things said by a Civil War re-enactor playing a Confederate; a gay incomer felt slighted during the passing of the peace at the town’s Methodist church — the biggest drama comes when a bartender from Brooklyn gets drunk and belligerently picks political fights with local residents.
One has to wonder if the relative lack of on-camera fireworks influenced Bravo’s decision to keep “Waverly” on the shelf for almost a year (the show was shot over six weeks in fall 2017) and why it runs just four hours.
“Four episodes feels bingeable,” Flynn said. “It’s not a coincidence we’re putting this on close to the mid-term elections. It’s an interesting time to talk about divides and red and blue and coastal vs. middle of the country. We hope the conversations sparked will spark more conversations and really engage people in a way it maybe wouldn’t another time of the year.”
Find freelance writer Rob Owen at RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as @RobOwenTV.
“Welcome to Waverly” premieres on Bravo at 9 p.m. Monday and runs nightly through Thursday.