Even before the news of Russell Armstrong’s suicide, The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills always came off as the most melancholic iteration of Bravo’s un-killable franchise. Sure, many of the trappings are the same—the surgically enhanced faces, the gaudy fashion, the mandatory post-season reunion/wound-salting—and like the other Housewives shows, the format and pacing seems to suggest that this is all supposed to be a bunch of dishy fun. But as the series progressed, it seemed that RHOBH had more in common emotionally with a show like Mad Men than The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. The enormous houses that these ladies puttered about in when they weren’t hanging out with psychics and subjecting themselves to the most terrifying facials known to man seemed to be festering grounds for paranoia and despair, and I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that a vague sense of existential dread hung over the proceedings, no matter how convivial.
The first season had already ended on a incredibly dark note, with the tortured relationship between sisters Kim and Kyle Richards coming to a nasty head, but on Aug. 15, when news broke that Russell, the frequently vilified and/or mocked husband of housewife Taylor Armstrong, had hung himself shortly after the couple’s divorce, the game changed instantly. This was beyond marital problems, alcoholism, or any other plight which, no matter how devastating for the individual concerned, are all fair game in the unspoken rules of modern reality television. This was an unequivocal tragedy, and one that suddenly cast the entire production and everyone associated with it in a very ugly light.
Bravo hemmed and hawed for several weeks over how to handle the season in light of Russell’s death, but really, the answer should have been easy. If this was a Frontline special or a controversial art film that would be one thing, but this is The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills we’re talking about, and despite the fact that I counted myself among its fans, I don’t think I could make the case that it is “important television” with a straight face. Yes, Giggy the Pom is so cute it makes me want to smash things, and yes, Alison DuBois was nothing short of reality TV gold, but the world would not suffer if it was denied a second season of this stuff. Much as I may want that $5 cupcake, if I found out a dude died while making it, I could probably find it in my heart to skip dessert, just this once.
But did anybody seriously think that Bravo would scrap an entire season of one of its most highly rated shows just because it would be the nice thing to do? Realistically, the only decision was whether to air it as is, or edit the Russell-related material with a softer touch, two slightly different flavors of tasteless. Considering that much of the original edit of the season was said to center on the couple’s emotionally and physically abusive marriage and Taylor’s mental collapse (all fun stuff we’re missing out on, I’m sure) the choice was pretty obvious. Less suicide, more puppies!
The result is a season opener whose primary strategy for diffusing the controversy is to just be really, really boring. But first! We are treated to the Suicide Special, which amounts to little more than the cast (minus Taylor) assembling in Adrienne Maloof’s tacky living room to talk about how shocked and saddened they are by Russell’s death, and—most importantly—how this isn’t anybody’s fault. Which, of course, is essentially true, but the more that sentiment was repeated, the more it seemed like the housewives were reading off a script penned by a bleary-eyed Bravo flack the night before. Good ol’ Kim makes the only really salient point of the whole discussion: Everyone was so wrapped up with Taylor’s well-being during the second season that nobody thought about what Russell was going through. I guess we’ll have to see just how much of an ass Russell comes off as this season, and what kinds of warning signs are on display, and exactly how justified the housewives were in not paying attention as he slowly spiraled into depression, a game which will undoubtedly be an unavoidable part of your Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills viewing experience, I’m afraid. Who’s stoked?
Proper penance having been paid, we zip back to early 2011 to see what kinds of totally not depressing hijinks our ladies are up to. Lisa Vanderpump’s fabulously named daughter Pandora Vanderpump is probably going to get married to a nice young man whose only memorable feature is his pink shirt; Kyle’s family is wearing hoodies and packing for their move into an even bigger mansion because they are so normal and down to earth, y’all; Camille is riding around in a golf cart with DD and trying to “find the humor” in getting divorced for a woman half her age. (Taylor is conspicuously missing from the roll call.)
Adrienne and Paul are still bickering, though I guess we’re supposed to be worried about it this time. For the first time we see Adrienne get legitimately upset when the two start fighting in front of their dinner party guests, but like most of their arguments it was hard to tell what it was about—all I could really gather was that Paul kept doing things that annoyed Adrienne, but Adrienne is so naturally bored and unreadable (it’s an easy blow, but in all seriousness, the Botox doesn’t help) and the fact that she never bothers to articulate what it is specifically that Paul is doing to annoy her makes it especially hard to decipher. Regardless, I still have a hard time buying that any of these little tiffs are any more than garden variety bickering, and the only reason we’re seeing so much of it is because hey, the audience at home wants to see someone’s marriage in a shambles! There’s also a weird little non-plot about the Maloofs’ chef Bennie having some sort of beef with Lisa. Apparently the removal of the Taylor and Russell plotline left such gaping holes in the runtime that the producers are now mining the help for drama.
So the PotE (“Party of the Episode”—RHOBH operates on a similar system to Gossip Girl in that there must be some kind of gala, ball, or hoedown every week) is the aforementioned dinner at Adrienne’s, which is also a screening party for Camille’s guest star turn on $#*! My Dad Says. Naturally, Paul cracks out the $2,200 champagne to mark this important occasion in television history. And boy, these ladies know how to have a $#*! My Dad Says party! I didn’t see the episode that Camille was on (or, you know, any episode of $#*! My Dad Says, ever) but from the housewives’ reactions it was THE FUNNIEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN SEEN BY MAN. Good for Camille! With her back in the group’s good graces, it’s time to find the show’s new villain.
And they are… Ken Todd and Giggy? A.k.a. the two most lovable characters on RHOBH? I almost felt bad for Adrienne and Taylor in the confessionals trying to make their cases for why Ken is so mean and Giggy so loathesome—it’s such a hilariously impossible battle to win. Ken rubbed Taylor and Kyle the wrong way when he said he would feel “weak” if he went to marriage counseling, which was probably not the best choice of words, but as Taylor says, it is a well-known fact that British people are much more cold and heartless than Beverly Hills people. Giggy, for his part, elicited gasps of horror when Ken let him stick his tiny nose and little pink tongue into Adrienne’s $5 trillion dollar goblets, and seeing the incident have a conclusion other than “look how freaking amazing Giggy is” felt very odd; if this was a scripted show I would think that the writer of tonight’s episode was new and hadn’t read the show bible all the way through. Unimpeachable RHOBH Fact #1: Giggy is infallible. Know that.
Lisa finally decides that she and Ken will bow out from the dinner party, mumbling something about having to pick someone up from the airport, and the couple makes their rather undignified exit. It was a weird note to end the episode on—I rather like the Vanderpump-Todds, and it was sad to see them bear the brunt of the group's hostility this time around. It’s also disheartening that we know where this season is headed, and it has nowhere to go but down. Just in case you hadn’t gotten the memo, as Adrienne makes her toast she also delivers a nasty little omen: In an apparent effort to reestablish peace among the housewives, each of the dinner guests received an olive branch. Which were taken from Adrienne’s dead olive tree. Which was struck down the week before during a storm. Interpret as you may.
- During the special, Paul makes the comment that Russell might have been too wrapped up trying to maintain the image of the Beverly Hills lifestyle. Paul says this while wearing hospital scrubs and purple crocs.
- Other great moments in Housewives fashion: While half the ladies show up in royal blue for Adrienne’s party, Kim arrives in some sort of fabulous black velvet majorette getup. “Great jacket!” coos Camille, which I think she meant as a snark, but I actually dug it. At any rate, she looked miles more comfortable than she did in all those girly cocktail dresses last season. I’m very excited for New Kim.
- I guess the première date came a little too soon for the producers to do anything more than just axe Taylor and Russell’s storyline wholesale from this episode. I imagine that in coming weeks we’ll see more of them, but as far as I know The A.V. Club will not be covering this show past the première.
- Kyle lists off the words that are verboten among the ’wives: insecure, insignificant, and offended. “My god, I need a dictionary for this crowd!”
- “They were yakking in the bothroom.”