Facing reality: How a docu-soap became as compelling as any scripted show
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In August of 2011 I was working at a Seattle-based TV news and gossip site aimed at women 18-34, the kind of job where the “O,” “M,” and “G” on your keyboard start to look a little faded after a few months. On the morning of the 16th I arrived at the office, fixed breakfast, and poured a cup of coffee in the break room, sleepily wondering if the guy from the CW had gotten back to me about a Secret Circle set visit, and if Lisa Vanderpump of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills had retweeted my article about her upcoming cookbook. I was about to head to my desk when my coworker came in, looking peculiarly weary for 9 a.m. “Did you hear?” she asked in a monotone. “Russell Armstrong committed suicide.”
If the gravitas I am granting this story sounds more appropriate for 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination than for the death of a minor cable reality star, I’ll try to put it in perspective. For about a year leading up to that day, my colleagues and I had been tasked with documenting the lives, both onscreen and off, of the cast of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills (among other shows). Episodes were quickly translated into lists of funny quotes and shocking moments; in the off-season we critiqued the wives’ fashion with superficial snark, and every tweeted pet photo was reposted with hyperbolic fawning. In other words, we were processing RHOBH exactly the way that Bravo intended, the way they intend for every edition of their half-billion-dollar Real Housewives franchise to be processed, and yes, the way a large majority of docu-soap producers intend for their programs to be processed: as mildly farcical escapist fluff, something to laugh both at and with in equal measure and then forget about as soon as the next distraction comes along.
But on August 16, when news broke that housewife Taylor Armstrong’s husband Russell had hanged himself in the guest room of a friend’s home, mere weeks after the couple had announced their separation and rumors of abuse had begun to surface, the curtain was pulled back. Any mindful person who had ever mindlessly indulged in an episode of reality television suddenly questioned whether all of this was fun enough to justify a life lost every now and again. The hand-wringing commenced. Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Salon, gave the show a particularly damning dressing down, directly blaming it and the increasingly ruthless culture of reality television for Russell’s death. Richard Lawson, who had so gleefully and imaginatively recapped the first season over at Gawker, denounced the première as ghoulish and regrettable. “I don’t like these shows to do sad and grim,” Lawson wrote. “No one should like these shows doing sad and grim. A little wistfulness here and there, sure. A little ache and pain and embarrassing struggle, of course. But sad and grim, dark and black and tragic? No, I do not want to watch that happen.” In my review of the première, I too expressed my doubts about whether the second season of RHOBH was important enough television to justify the gross exploitation that its narrative would necessitate.
In hindsight, what many of us were responding to was contextual whiplash; one second we were enjoying a truffle burger on the patio at Umami, the next minute we were in the slaughterhouse. And while in recent years people have placed more and more value in knowing where their food comes from and what goes into it, there’s willful ignorance when it comes to how our reality television is made. I’m not talking about editing and scripting, two particular additives that we’ve come to accept as inescapable in this kind of entertainment. I’m referring to the lives of the people involved, the recognition that these are three-dimensional human beings with experiences that extend beyond what we see on television, even the ones that we consider “bitchy” or, that ultimate diss in the reality-verse, “fake.” Reality TV is people, not necessarily good or loveable people, but people with complexities and nuances that many shows try to gloss over to better expedite the telling of the story they’ve prioritized.
Russell Armstrong’s death forced an industry to acknowledge the ugliness, sadness, and real human struggle that is often happening behind its ever-so-cannily constructed scenes. Even in RHOBH’s first season, there was a captivating, palpable despair lurking under the slick veneer of the Beverly Hills the show wants us to believe exists; in the second season it just ceased to lurk and actually reared its horrible head. Make no mistake, The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills is not pleasant television, but then, neither are many episodes of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or other “serious” shows I adore and respect. One might argue that those scripted shows have some great, profound thing to say about the human condition that RHOBH does not, but I don’t think I could disagree more. Sure, I went in to season two ready for the worst, but over the course of the 22 episodes that followed, my regard for the show went from disgust and embarrassment to what I can only describe as revelation. Genre, network, editing, intention, manipulation, and undeniable exploitation notwithstanding, season two of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills was one of the most important, morally complex, thought-provoking bodies of work I’ve ever seen on television, and even if I’m not necessarily “glad” it exists, I think it had to.
The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, like many good dramas, hinges on a central uncomfortable juxtaposition, but here the contrasts play out not only through the plot and the characters, but through the format of the show itself. For those who are familiar with Bravo’s signature tone and format, there’s an agonizing disconnect between the loneliness, paranoia, and tragedy these women face, and the orchestrated conviviality that comes with being on a show with the words Real Housewives in the title. This disconnect seemed almost accidental in season one, before any of the more embattled cast members had been forced to address their demons on screen. But in season two, we watched as a skeletal Taylor had a nervous breakdown in the middle of what was supposed to be a fun, luxurious ski trip in Aspen, and as an increasingly incoherent Kim Richards (whose struggle with substance abuse has been an ongoing thread ever since the first season finale) babbled sadly to her makeup artist as she got gussied up for Lisa’s big restaurant opening. The gulf between aspiration and reality is huge, and it isn’t always clear if some of the women realize it. These are character arcs every bit as multifaceted as anything on Mad Men (maybe even more multifaceted).
Now, before the trolling accusations commence, I want to clarify that this does not mean that I think that Russell’s death was somehow “worth it” because it resulted in Great TV. Obviously it was an extremely tragic situation, the preventability of which is questionable at best. (No, I don’t think Russell’s blood is on Andy Cohen’s hands, but the Bravo producers and casting directors are the reason this all ended up playing out in public. It’s pretty obvious that the Armstrongs were a deeply screwed-up family long before the cameras arrived in their home, and probably recognizably so—that’s why they got cast.) But if we’re evaluating television based on what kinds of conversations it provokes and what it has to say about society, then just from my personal experience alone I can say that RHOBH has been the subject of some of the most satisfying conversations I’ve had, and some of the most insightful criticism I’ve read in the last year, whether it be Julie Klausner’s dead-on (and hilarious) recaps at Vulture, or Kate Aurthur’s recent reappraisal on The Daily Beast. These are conversations about abuse, addiction, denial, and the tragicomic maintenance of appearances, not about whether we’re “Team Kyle” or “Team Camille.”
There were two possible courses of action as Bravo debated what to do in the days following the suicide: The network could lock up season two and throw away the key, keeping intact the memory of a silly show about six vain women getting into petty arguments and spending vast quantities of money; or it could air it, tearing down that fourth wall and letting the ugly flood in. The decision to take the second course of action could be and was called many things—tacky, mercenary, insensitive—but all of these accusations could have just as easily been applied to the first season. The difference is an attempt, albeit imperfect, at honesty.
In season one, Taylor was mostly defined by the nauseatingly lavish $60,000 birthday party she threw for her 5-year-old daughter, which in a single, broad stroke branded her as the loathsome try-hard we were all to ready to believe she was. (The Housewives franchise has gotten some flack in the past for what could be easily construed as casual misogyny; at times it seems all too eager to depict women as petty, stupid monsters.) In season two this portrayal wasn’t necessarily negated, but it was shaded in. Taylor’s still throwing ridiculous parties for Kennedy—this time at a dude ranch, with a special appearance by American Idol alum Ace Young—but it’s more obviously an attempt to distract herself (and unsuccessfully, her friends and the audience) from her suffering. At Kennedy’s fifth birthday, the other wives regarded the excess with raised eyebrows and snarky confessionals; at Kennedy’s sixth, they begin to genuinely question the stability of their hostess. At Kennedy’s fifth birthday, the camera lingered on the party favors and catering spread while snappy “isn’t this broad ker-AZY?” music played in the background; at Kennedy’s sixth, the camera stays mostly trained on Taylor’s increasingly strained smile.
The birthday fell right on the heels of a particularly dramatic gathering at Lisa Vanderpump’s house, a gathering that, like Kennedy’s party, probably came at the suggestion of the producers—they have to get these women in the same room once a week somehow. Camille Grammer, fed up with Taylor’s denial and protectiveness of her husband, emotionally outs Russell’s abuse—a significant moment, as it was the first time any cast member had directly acknowledged the issue on camera, even though it was common knowledge among all the women long before that. Her words not only marked a turning point in the show, but summed up the dramatic change in the tone of the show since its debut: “We don’t say he hit you! We don’t say that he broke your jaw or that he beat you up! We don’t say that, but now we’ve said it.”
I remember vividly the first time a television episode made me cry. It was The Sopranos’ “University,” after Ralphie stomps his stripper girlfriend Tracee to death in the parking lot of Bada Bing. For an hour after the credits rolled, I remember staring at the wall, immobile with sadness, trying to wrap my brain around the kind of circumstances that would make a person capable of such horrific cruelty. What’s more, I knew this wasn’t going to be an isolated tragedy thrown in for shock value, because I knew how The Sopranos worked and that there would be repercussions that would ripple through the entire universe of the show. I was devastated by what I had seen on screen, but it was a satisfying devastation, the kind that is somehow invigorating in its ability to remind us how fragile life is.
Almost a decade later I found myself in a similar catatonic state, having just watched the penultimate RHOBH season two episode, “Night Of A Thousand Surprises.” The episode centers on the reopening of Lisa Vanderpump’s Sur Lounge, right in the midst of Taylor’s divorce and multiple, minor feuds among the wives. It ends with the women settling their differences for the time being and joining bling-encrusted hands as they promise to support Taylor. But by that point I was barely paying attention, still rattled from the harrowing journey of Kim Richards that had been playing out separately as all this was going on. Over the course of the episode, Kim spent the episode on bathroom floor searching for her “medicine,” in the back of the limo restlessly fidgeting with a handful of trash, locked in the bathroom at Sur, and finally, tearfully telling her sister Kyle that she was pregnant. (She wasn’t.) It was such a devastatingly unblinking portrayal of an addict, not to mention a socially awkward and anxious one that at one point I had been rather fond of.
The episode was hard to watch—but isn’t that the way it should be? In the unfortunate situations where reality stars deal with real struggles, is it better for them to be played off for laughs (“wasted Kim” was often a punchline of season one), or is it an opportunity to try a little empathy and open up a dialogue? This isn’t an argument for more death, darkness, and tragedy in our reality shows. I’m not saying that I wish Jersey Shore would stop beating around the bush and just dive into the inner turmoil of Nicole Polizzi. But our fear of letting reality TV be real may be more insensitive and culturally destructive than the alternative. The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills will go down in history as the first time a reality show was really forced to look at itself in the mirror, and in doing so it was able to make a singular and invaluable statement about the state of reality, television, and the people who live there.