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RHOBH: What happens when a harsh dose of reality hits a reality show?

RHOBH: What happens when a harsh dose of reality hits a reality show?
August 18, 2011 DAVE Q
Russell, Taylor and Kennedy Armstrong

TelevisionBytes with NineDaves

It’s safe to say that no Housewives premiere had fans more excited than the upcoming season two premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. After all, the first season of RHOBH was a runaway hit for Bravo, hitting 4.2 million viewers and reviving the Housewives franchise after the disaster that was The Real Housewives of D.C.. There were breakout stars (Lisa Vanderpump, Kyle Richards, and Giggy, to name a few), The glamour was over-the-top (Adrienne Maloof seriously has more money than any of the housewives from all the other cities combined). And the show already had major controversies afoot (Camille Grammer’s divorce from Kelsey has enough drama to make up it’s own show, not to mention Kim Richards’ trip to rehab and a return visit from Cedric).

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills - Season Two

Yet in the wake of the recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of housewife Taylor Armstrong, I’m going to guess that we’re not going to see the second season of RHOBH anytime soon, it was supposed to premiere on September 5th. If the trailer is any indication, this season focused heavily on Russell and Taylor’s financial problems and eventual separation. No matter how long Bravo delays it, re-edits it, or re-shoots it, it’s going to be hard to erase the tragic reality from this reality show.

But should they?

The Housewives franchise is no stranger to harsh realities. Since the franchise began, we’ve seen an onslaught of housewife horrors. Nearly a dozen of the ladies have filed bankruptcy (including RHONYC’s Sonja Morgan, RHONJ’s Teresa Guidice, and RHOOC’s Alexis Bellino). Seven have divorced (see: almost every housewife from RHOOC). And in RHONJ’s Danielle Staub alone, we got a background of kidnapping, jail time, and prostitution (plus, she was engaged nineteen times!).

This also isn’t the first time the Real Housewives franchise has dealt with death. Gretchen Rossi’s fiancé, Jeff Beitzel, lost his battle with leukemia a few months before the fourth season of The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered. Kandi Burruss’ ex fiancé, Ashley Jewell (“AJ”), was killed in a knife fight while the second season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta was still airing (but before the season 2 reunion taped – which gave Andy Cohen plenty of time to address it).

So the precedent has been set that Bravo will probably try and keep the show going. Most likely, they’ll take a strong edit to Taylor’s segments and film new interviews with her that shows more sympathy towards Russell. Maybe bulk up screen time for new “friends of the housewives”, Brandi Glanville and Dana Wilkey. Do anything they can to tone things down.

But I don’t think Bravo should try and tone things down or distract from the issue at hand. Russell Armstrong killed himself. He left behind three kids – a 13-year-old son and 11-year old son from a previous marriage, and Kennedy, he and Taylor’s 5-year-old daughter who we saw on the show. He left behind a grieving family. A financial shit-show. And a slew of unanswered questions. That’s reality.

In the case of Russell Armstrong, reality was complicated.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills wasn’t very kind to Russell; he came off cold, insensitive, and downright creepy. He was clearly portrayed as the bad guy in his struggling marriage. You never got the sense that he cared about Taylor’s feelings – just her augmented physicality. He seemed to be totally controlling of her time, and was downright disrespectful regarding her opinions (see: the puppy that he bought for Kennedy after Taylor asked him not to). By the end of the first season, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who actually liked him at all.

Looking back on it, it’s hard not to think of Russell in a totally different matter. Maybe he was depressed? He was socially withdrawn and awkward. Exhibited cloudy judgment. He obviously knew his marriage was falling apart. Why would he want to film a reality show about glamour and catfights? He probably thought his best bet was to blend into the background – pull back and focus on his own stuff. Which is exactly he did, and what ultimately made him come off as the bad guy.

I’m not saying I wasn’t right there totally villainizing Russell either. I never felt any sympathy towards him. But was he really that awful? I mean, he wanted to leave a party early. He wanted to get his daughter a dog. He didn’t want to come to Vegas. He just wasn’t into being on reality TV.

So now you have a public persona that’s a pretty unforgiving negative. And then your estranged wife goes to People claiming she suffered physical abuse during her marriage?  And you’re having serious financial problems. And all of that’s about to be televised again in a matter of weeks? Not even taking into account the rumored secret gay lifestyle, that’s got to be hard to handle.

But are those the reasons Russell Armstrong hung himself? Probably not. Suicide is a very dark, lonely, selfish act. Who knows what really drove Russell to that point? It could have been none of these things at all. We’ll never know for sure. You can’t blame the show. You can’t blame Taylor. You can only blame Russell Armstrong; Russell made that choice. He chose to take his own life – to leave behind his family and friends.

So I’d beg Bravo to keep the show as is: Let us see all of it go down. There’s a lot we can learn from Russell’s story. There’s a lot we can learn from Taylor’s story. We haven’t really seen how a family reacts to suicide – especially when a family is already broken – and we haven’t really seen how a reality show can affect someone’s reality so drastically. Bravo could go a long way by showing it – ‘cause not every story has a happy ending.

Russell, Taylor and Kennedy Armstrong