There are some things that make for great reality television fodder.
Gossiping housewives, taut and tanned partying twenty-somethings and a sassy, 7-year-old aspiring beauty queen hopped up on a sugary concoction called “go-go juice” are a few of the mindless reality plots that come to mind.
But there are some things that shouldn’t be documented.
Watching a family grieve and pick up the pieces after a devastating loss is at the top of the list.
That’s what makes “The Houstons: On Our Own,” which premiered Wednesday on Lifetime, such an uncomfortable intrusive watch.
Reality series centered on celebrities and their interpersonal relationships are always a fun snapshot behind the excess of fame and fortune. They offer viewers a chance to live vicariously through the lens of their favorite star and see how underneath it all they are just like us.
It was fun when it was the eccentricities of the Osbornes, the oversharing cringe-worthiness of Gene Simmons’ clan or the bickering of Brandy and Ray J. Being a fly on the wall in these worlds is the sort of escapist television that is inviting to pass the time. And it’s an added bonus to see the juicy drama of celebrity -- VH1 has built entire programming blocks around it.
But here, it just doesn’t feel right watching a family whose central character died so tragically, while the death – and the salacious details surrounding it – is still so fresh in our minds.
When Whitney Houston died of a combination of heart trouble and cocaine ingestion barely 24 hours before the Grammy telecast in February, the shock was widespread. But so was the intrigue.
Tracing the latter half of the pop titan’s life had become sport for supermarket gossip rags as she struggled with substance abuse. The headlines (and constant speculation) came fast and furious when her life came to an end in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton hours before mentor Clive Davis’ annual Pre-Grammy Gala.
Three months to the day after her untimely death, Lifetime announced it had secured a reality show anchored by her family. Despite the positive spin, how could the network not find themselves high-fiving over the potential ratings gold? It worked for Oprah Winfrey, whose sit-down with the family exactly a month later drew OWN’s largest audience ever.
The 14 episodes center around Whitney’s manager, sister-in-law and closest confidant Pat Houston, Whitney’s brother Gary and the couple’s teenage daughter Rayah. Her mother, Cissy Houston, also appears.
But that’s not why viewers likely tuned in to watch the premiere Wednesday night and Lifetime probably knows this.
Clips teasing the show heavily feature Houston’s only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown, who also stars. Though Pat is the main character, Bobbi -- already dealing with intense media scrutiny -- is the driving force. And the reason to tune in -- and people will tune in.
The show picks up three months after Houston’s passing as the family prepares to celebrate Mother’s Day without her. Scenes include going to her grave for the first time.
Three minutes into the first episode Bobbi Kristina is defending her controversial relationship with fiance Nick Gordon. It was reported that Houston took Gordon in and informally adopted him. They both are adamant that no one understands their relationship.
“We were best friends long, long ago, and now I’m in love with him,” she says. “It was never anything that these people are saying that it was incest. None of that. You guys can take my word for it.”
The disapproval from the family and taming Bobbi Kristina (who is seen clearly drinking a cocktail in the episode) appear to be major plot elements. As is the strain on Pat and Gary’s marriage, and their daughter, Rayah, feeling slighted by her cousin’s presence and Bobbi’s complicated relationship with her grandmother and father.
To see the Houston family agree to have the lens on them – when they’ve already been so over-exposed in the wake of Whitney’s passing – is disheartening, and quite frankly baffling, especially after the embarrassment Houston faced after Bravo’s short-lived “Being Bobby Brown.”
People tuned into the 2005 series not because they cared about her then equally troubled husband, who in sad irony was arrested on suspicion of DUI in L.A. on Wednesday (his second such arrest this year), but also because it was a low point for Houston. The show allowed viewers to gawk at the break down of her regal image -- one she fought endlessly to keep, even to the very end.
As a gospel hymn, sung hauntingly by Houston, echoes in the background, viewers see the first time the family has gone to the grave site. It’s the episode’s most intrusive moment. Though the cameras kept a careful distance, it’s a private moment that shouldn’t have unfolded on television.
“God, I don’t know how it happened, but it happened,” Bobbi Kristina says through tears as she squats over her mother’s plot, which was surrounded by white roses.
“The Houstons: On Our Own,” feels exploitive. Even if the family invited viewers into their homes in an attempt to control the conversation surrounding Houston’s rise and fall, their grief over her demise shouldn’t be accessible at the click of a remote.