Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete don’t seem like the kind of people you’d expect would put their whole family on reality TV.
They’re not known for tipping over tables or throwing drinks in people’s faces. They’ve experienced enough drama in their lives — including raising four kids, one of whom has autism — not to feel the need to manufacture more. And their idea of a good time is a family trip to the Grand Canyon in an RV.
All of which makes them a perfect fit for the Hallmark Channel, where the second season of Meet the Peetes premieres on Sunday, Feb. 24.
Beginning with public television’s 1970s docu-series An American Family, the history of people inviting camera crews into their home isn’t a happy one. Trying to keep up with the Kardashians or the Gosselins or any of Bravo’s “Housewives” might make viewers feel better about their own families, but being on TV hasn’t exactly proved a great strategy for strengthening marriages.
Robinson Peete, who once competed on The Celebrity Apprentice, where “I was kind of in the drama, but I pulled back a little bit,” knows the pitfalls of family reality shows.
“If we were on Bravo, it’d be a different story. We have friends that are on these [Real Housewives] shows,” she said. “Hallmark Channel really seems to get who we are as a couple and a family, and they just really allowed us to be who we are.”
The Philadelphia-born actress (21 Jump Street, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper) spent her childhood in Mount Airy and made her TV debut in the 1969 premiere of Sesame Street, where her father, the late Matthew Robinson, was the original Gordon. She and her former quarterback husband, who spent four of his 16 years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and who now cohosts a sports radio show in Los Angeles, spoke with me last summer and this month about why allowing camera crews to follow them for several months a year hasn’t turned out to be a terrible idea.
“The best part is that we are executive producers. The Hallmark Channel has let us get final cut, which we should because our kids are involved, and there are minors involved,” Robinson Peete said, adding that although she’s grateful to OWN, which earlier featured the family in a similar show called For Peete’s Sake, Hallmark’s “such a better fit for us.”
“It’s really about our family brand,” she said. “We’re a philanthropic brand, and it’s all about autism and how that brought us together as a family,” after the diagnosis of their oldest son, RJ, who’s now 21 and a clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1997, the couple founded the HollyRod Foundation to offer support for people touched by Parkinson’s, the disease that killed her father. HollyRod’s mission has since expanded to include help for families dealing with autism, and the show’s first season focused in part on the Peetes’ volunteer efforts and on plans for RJ’s Place Vocational Training Center, to help teens and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for and find jobs.
“Wherever we go, a family comes up to us and says RJ has given them a sense of hope for their child,” she said of the son they once were told would never do so many things and who now not only holds a job but drives himself to work. “The show has given him a sense of, ‘Hey, I could be a role model to other kids.’ "
Going in, “both of us were … nervous about the kids and how they would be portrayed and do we want this?” Rodney Peete said. “So it was a family around the dinner table talking about … are we ready for, you know, for the world to know who we are? And everybody agreed that we were going to do this and we’re going to help people, and that that outweighed everything else.”
For Bill Abbott, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, the Hallmark Channel’s parent company, said making Meet the Peetes the cable network’s first reality show seemed like the right call.
“They represent so many awesome things about family and the way to raise kids, and they’re role models — both of them are — that to us it seemed like that show shouldn’t have been canceled” by OWN, he said.
At Hallmark, he said, they felt it “should be done in a way that’s more focused on the family, more focused on how they raise their kids, their philosophy and some of the challenges that they have in raising children, and that we all have raising children.”
It didn’t hurt that the Peetes are an African American family. Increasing Hallmark’s diversity is very important, Abbott said, adding that "they represent the best of all families.”
“We’re not trying to be that family that argues all the time or they flip the tables,” Rodney Peete said. They’d heard from other networks during the pitching process that “we need more conflict from you and Holly. We need you guys to be angry at each other.”
Meet the Peetes isn’t conflict-free. It’s just that most of the arguments make sense. (Though I’ve never been sure why Holly thought surprising Rodney with last season’s juice-cleanse challenge was a good idea.)
One story line last season involved Rodney’s frustration at not getting more alone time with his wife, who, beyond her work with the foundation, spends a lot of time out of town acting in other Hallmark projects, including the Morning Show Mystery movie series, in which she stars with Rick Fox for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.
How’s that going?
“She’s working more now,” her husband said. “She’s in Vancouver as much as she’s in L.A. But that’s like real conflict, right? That’s real, that people can relate to. You want one or the other to spend more time at home with the kids … as opposed to, ‘I’m out at a nightclub with girls and let’s go find Rodney and have a big blowup’ and all that kind of stuff. And that’s just not us.”
He hinted that this season’s trip to the Grand Canyon, which Robinson Peete called “my dream RV road trip to Arizona, that I’ve been thinking about since I was a little girl in Philly,” might have included a few bumps in the road
“I begged Holly to let somebody else drive, but she wanted to drive herself. And I refuse to drive [the RV] …. If I want to go on a road trip, I want to relax a little bit, especially if it’s an RV,” he said.
Her version? “I wanted him to help me drive, but he refused. … And I drove, and it was a little scary, but I made it.”
The season involves other travel, including Robinson Peete and RJ traveling to Berlin to see RJ’s twin sister, Ryan, during the New York University student’s semester abroad. (The Peetes also have two younger sons, Robinson and Roman.)
But for Robinson Peete, the high point is the episode that took her back to Sesame Street as part of the show’s 50th anniversary season celebration.
“It was a full-circle moment of my life that I just get emotional thinking about,” she said. “I got to go back and be on Sesame Street 50 years after … I blew my line 50 years ago. I was supposed to say, ‘Hi, Gordon,’ and I said, ‘Hi, Daddy.’ And I’ve never gotten over it and I got to make up for it.”