On August 15, 2011, Russell Armstrong, husband of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, took his own life.
Besides the obvious tragedy that his family and friends had to deal with, Bravo was faced with setting a precedent about how to deal with the dark issues of real people in a reality TV medium that is often full of manufactured, lighthearted drama.
After making the decision to salvage the footage they had been shooting since June 2011, Bravo aired a special ahead of the RHOBH season 2 premiere that showed fellow housewives Kim and Kyle Richards, Adrienne Maloof, Camille Grammer and Lisa Vanderpump along with their husbands gathered to discuss some of their feelings on Russell’s death. By doing this, Bravo proved that they were not classless enough to ignore the entire situation or merely capitalize on the viewers the “drama” would bring in. They also pushed back the premiere date in order to edit some of the scenes that contained Russell and Taylor arguing.
And until the most recent episode, Russell wasn’t included much in the season. And even now, he’s not included as much as the ghost of impending doom that hangs over all of these women who have no idea of what’s coming.The tragic irony makes the actual reality of death take away from all of the reasons we enjoy watching the Real Housewives in the first place.
During the last episode appropriately (or maybe inappropriately) named “The Great Divide,” viewers witnessed Taylor pick a fight with Lisa about their friendship, when we knew the roots of her troubles go much deeper. Whether Taylor’s reports of abuse by her husband are true or not, it is hard not to feel sympathy for her as you literally observe a woman’s marriage falling apart.
E! reported at the time that Bravo had released a statement the day of Russell’s death saying that plot points on the upcoming season would include a “plot point from Taylor where she continues to struggle with a loveless marriage.” Other sources report that Russell felt crushed by the damning light the show put him in. By putting these pieces together, the viewer can only assume that they are witnessing actual events (among probably others) that led to an actual man’s suicide.
As if this wasn’t lamentable enough, as “The Great Divide” continued, viewers were invited to Russell and Taylor’s daughter Kennedy’s fifth birthday. The rodeo-themed party seemed like nothing but happy festivities, with a petting zoo, bouncy things, a mechanical bull and even a former American Idol. But there was a dark cloud, both literally and figuratively, over the entire celebration as Russell posed for pictures with his family at the last birthday little Kennedy would get to experience with her father. The episode ended on a more heartbreaking note, as Russell introduced Kennedy to her birthday present, a horse, and walked alongside her as she rode it for the first time.
And there are still several episodes to go in this fateful season. In July, 2011, Taylor filed for divorce from Russell. Since this took place during filming, we can only assume there will be more dreadful scenes including Russell that likely led him to his suicidal despair. In this writer’s opinion, the less we see of Russell, the better. We know there were problems and that the two split; the rest should be kept private, out of respect for the Armstrongs, as well as for the viewers.
At first glance, it may seem like too harsh a juxtaposition for Bravo to continue to air trivial-seeming things, like scenes that feature our favorite Pomeranian Giggy wearing pink tweed suits, alongside the deterioration of Taylor and Russell’s marriage. But it might be a necessary evil in order continue delivering the effervescent entertainment that the series inherently promises viewers.
After all, the reason we tune in each week is to see the housewives squabble over things that are relatively inconsequential. We tune in to see the mansions and the clothes, often in light of our own recession-stricken lives. We tune in to see these women in their fairytale-like lives full of luxury and triviality. So when real tragedy strikes–and even worse, when we know it’s about to strike and we just have to watch and wait as it approaches–it’s harder to enjoy or even access the lighthearted reasons we watched in the first place.
But we also tune in to really get a glimpse into these peoples’ lives, and that’s something that Bravo has achieved for RHOBH viewers by both addressing the tragedy and continuing on with the series, in the hope of trying to make everything else seem like business as usual.
While this Beverly Hills season is difficult to watch, it really is a new experiment in “reality” TV. And in the future, other networks may well make decisions about how to broadcast tragedy based on how Bravo handled theirs.
(Image courtesy of Bravo)