The second season premiere of the hit Bravo reality TV show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was highly-anticipated, due in no small part to the fact that Taylor Armstrong’s husband Russell committed suicide just weeks before the season began. TV critics, fans and Internet pundits weighed in from far and wide as to whether the show should be scrapped, or the premiere delayed.
But of course, this is television, and reality television at that – a genre that exists specifically to exploit the tumultuous lives of its cast members for ratings and profit. Armstrong’s death arguably served only to heighten awareness of the show and its upcoming premiere, and no television network was going to walk away from that kind of built-in publicity. In the end Bravo executives surprised nobody when they announced that the premiere would go forward on schedule, with some inserted footage of the cast members talking about Armstrong’s death.
The result of that decision was a brief shot that led off Monday night’s episode. The cast members, with the exception of Taylor Armstrong, met at Adrienne Maloof’s house to discuss Armstrong’s suicide, throwing around hollow phrases like, “I can’t believe we didn’t see this coming,” and “Nobody can know what’s in someone else’s mind” as if they were deep, thoughtful insights into the human psyche. They generally blamed financial problems and his impending divorce for his demise; curiously, nobody mentioned the fact that Armstrong had alluded to the strain of how he felt he was mischaracterized in the show’s first season as a factor.
Another uncomfortable reality is that it seemed apparent that none of the cast particularly liked Armstrong. “I had too much information to want to connect with him,” Lisa Vanderpump said, evidently referring to Taylor Armstrong’s recent claims that her husband was verbally and physically abusive.
Kyle Richards summed up the entire pointless discussion with yet another meaningless platitude. “Life goes on,” she said. “It has to.”
Of course, life does not go on for Russell Armstrong, but why linger on that one unpleasant plot element when you have a show to get on the air? It’s easier to go back and re-edit the season (which Bravo is in the process of doing) to de-emphasize the character of Russell Armstrong and the marital problems that ultimately led to a breakup. It’s more entertaining to focus on big lips, small dogs and disastrous dinner parties than actual human drama. That would be too much like . . . reality. Who wants to watch that?
It’s going to be difficult to watch the season unfold, knowing in advance that the strain of some of the events depicted helped to cause one of the people you’re watching to decide to take his own life. It makes the trivial interpersonal dramas of these spoiled rich people seem even more vacuous than they already do.
But then again, we don’t watch reality TV because of the way it edifies the human collective, do we? No, we watch reality TV because there’s a secret part of us that likes to gossip about our own friends, neighbors and even family members because it makes us feel better about ourselves and our own human failings. And if we can feel like rich, famous people have it just as bad as – or even better, worse than we do, then we’ll keep on watching . . . all the while shaking our heads at how sad it all is.