Critic’s Notebook: In the glare of reality TV, a harsh truth

The only truly surprising thing about this week’s “TV Reality Star Commits Suicide” headlines is that they haven’t appeared sooner. The death of Russell Armstrong, who appeared with his wife, Taylor, and their 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy, on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” has given the world of situational reality TV pause. Like a number of those participating in the endlessly self-spawning franchise, the Armstrongs were unstable both maritally and financially. Not surprisingly, the pressures of the show, which, according to friends, demanded that they play up their problems rather than try to solve them, did not improve things. In July, Taylor filed for divorce, and on Monday night, Russell was found hanged in a friend’s house on Mulholland Drive.

Bravo executives extended their condolences and denied reports that producers had told the Taylors that they were the show’s “crisis couple” and so should behave accordingly. As of press time, the fate of the upcoming second season, which originally followed the divorce story line, is as yet undecided while Bravo executives, presumably, calculate viewers’ collective gag reflex.

It will be interesting to see what they decide, since there is no denying that, even though participation in the show did not cause Russell Armstrong’s problems, it certainly exacerbated them. In earlier interviews, Russell and Taylor admitted that living large in front of an audience made an already tense pair of lives more difficult. When, earlier this year, Taylor accused Russell of shoving her, he confessed that he had but claimed that being on the show “literally pushed us to the edge.”

Obviously, a normal person would have withdrawn from the series long before tensions led to domestic violence or a lifestyle that one could not afford. But these are not normal people — they are people who wanted to be part of “The Real Housewives,” a franchise unapologetically, and successfully, dedicated to presenting wealthy women as grasping, backstabbing, self-obsessed, self-destructive, unproductive social climbers.

And if the wives are bad, the husbands are worse, allowing themselves to be dragged into notoriety passing only barely as fame while they bob in the background, the subject of either patronizing affection or incessant complaint, impotently smoking cigars and occasionally making a Ricky Ricardo-like comment about how much money their wives go through while they try not to look at the cameras. As The Times reported earlier this week, at least six of the “Housewives” subsequently have filed for divorce, and even more have filed for bankruptcy.


Now imagine a human being so oblivious and/or desperate for attention, and possibly cash (Bethenny Frankel got her own spinoff! And made millions for her Skinnygirl Margarita brand!) that he, or she, would sign up for that. At this point, the willingness to appear on a situational reality show should be classified as a symptom of emotional instability, if not a mental illness in itself.

And it isn’t just the “Housewives” or Bravo. Over at MTV, the already beleaguered “Teen Moms” have cycled in and out of tabloid trouble — one has attempted suicide — and “Jersey Shore” seems just one tequila shot away from date rape or death by alcohol poisoning on most episodes. VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab” provides viewers with cheap seats to alcoholics and addicts at their most vulnerable — former star Jeff Conaway’s recent death was from pneumonia, but it began with an overdose — and “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are factories of the fury hell hath none like. Ironically it was mama-centric TLC that truly blew the lid on the sanctity of reality — if Jon and Kate could split, no one was safe from the rigors of “fame,” and “Wife Swap’s” Heene family got the cops involved when, in the hopes of selling another reality series, they sent law enforcement and the national media chasing a weather balloon in which they claimed their youngest son was trapped.

One can only imagine the future memoirs of the children involved in these shows — forget the lamentations of Joseph Heller’s daughter, what are Danielle Staub’s children thinking?

For years, public and critical reaction to shows like “The Hills” and “The Housewives” has been wildly mixed. What some consider a guilty pleasure, an anthropological curiosity or simply another form of public drama others perceive as a sign of decaying society, right up there with public hangings, gladiator fights and beheadings. To call something “entertainment” doesn’t mean much in the long run — British royalty used to find the patients at Bedlam very entertaining, but as of yet we don’t have live feeds from mental hospitals.

With Armstrong’s death, however, such things seem just one click closer. What is the difference between watching a man’s marriage and life crumble before he commits suicide and watching the suicide itself? The younger generation certainly understands one possible trajectory: When author Suzanne Collins imagined a world so broken it televises an annual to-the-death competition among children, young readers sent her to the top of the bestseller list. No doubt discussions of Armstrong’s death will appear in publications also busy reporting on the filming of “The Hunger Games.”

So what’s to be done? Nothing, and perhaps everything. Clearly audiences take pleasure in the divorces and downfalls of reality stars — shows like “The Real Housewives” are, we are told time and again, the new soap operas, only with real people. And that is important to remember. Though the people are real, the situations are not. Casting and scripting create the story and the drama — the overturned tables, the tearful confrontations — and that includes putting the participants in harm’s way, either emotionally or financially.

No one can, or should, keep Bravo from creating more “Real Housewives,” and no one can, or should, keep an adult from participating in a reality show. It’s viewers who should take Armstrong’s death as an opportunity to reflect on what it is they are watching and why. Because an overturned table is one thing; a 5-year-old who has a role in a television show but no father is another.