'Real Housewives': Suicide should have scrapped Season 2
The only meaningful statement Bravo could have made after the suicide last month of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” spouse Russell Armstrong would have been to cancel Season 2, which depicts, among other things, the collapse of the Armstrong marriage.
That, of course, was not going to happen — any hint of responsibility would have been taken as an admission that being on television has become an attractive nuisance, like an unfenced swimming pool. Instead, after offering their heartfelt condolences, the producers simply re-edited the season premiere a bit and added a preface, filmed Aug. 29, in which the cast directly addressed the tragedy.
Which meant, for five minutes or so, all the housewives except Armstrong's wife Taylor — in full hair, makeup and Jackie O. sunglasses — converged on Adrienne Maloof's over-kitschy manse to reassure themselves that they had nothing to feel guilty about.
Looking serious and dabbing occasionally at their eyes, they each professed their shock and sorrow (“I never saw any sign of it,” “I don't think any of us saw any sign of it”) just as if they had actually been friends with Armstrong and not simply participants in a franchise built around the drama of discord, including and especially marital problems.
In other words, they reacted to his death in character, maintaining the fiction that their show was more or less a documentary rather than a manipulated if not outright scripted drama in which certain participants were encouraged to play certain roles. Even for a spouse, Armstrong was rarely seen in Season 1, and when he appeared it was simply to illustrate the complaints Taylor had about him — he was distant, he was cold, he worked too much, he did not want her “to have fun” (which appeared, even last year, to be code for “he doesn't really want to be on this show”).
When the issue of “casting” was raised in the preface, when Kim Richards suggested that perhaps the friends (i.e. the show) concentrated too much on Taylor's unhappiness at the expense of Armstrong's, the rest of the cast quickly disagreed — “I don't think even Taylor knew,” said Lisa Vanderpump. “We were all told the same thing,” said Camille Grammer. “We were all acting on what we were told.”
Blinking away their tears, they all agreed they would not have done anything different, and then Kyle Richards stepped up to the narrative plate: “A lot of us have guilt about not seeing this coming,” she said. “You can't feel responsible for that. It was his choice, it was his choice,” she added, and it was not clear whether she referred to Armstrong's suicide or his decision to do the show. But her final declaration was clear enough — “It's hard for me to move forward, it was such a tragic situation. But as difficult as this is, life goes on.”
Cue music and the vacuous nonsense that passes for life in the “Real Housewives” universe, in which with Season 2 nothing, and everything, has changed. The Vanderpump daughter may be getting engaged; Camille will survive her divorce from Kelsey Grammer; Kyle and Kim cope with their leftover sister issues; Adrienne pits her tiny dog Jackpot against the Vanderpumps' tiny dog Giggy.
A bit about Taylor shopping for naughty underwear to spice up her marriage was, tastefully, excised, but it is impossible to edit real life from reality. A dinner party at Adrienne's house quickly proved why Bravo should have gone with “cancel Season 2.”
A fight between Adrienne and her husband, Paul Nassif, obviously manufactured to make everyone “uncomfortable,” led Paul to ask how Taylor was doing (Russell Armstrong was not in attendance).
The discussion turned to the fact that Taylor and Armstrong were in therapy. This gave Ken Vanderpump the chance to play the Neanderthal and say, among other things, that if he had to go into therapy he “would feel weak.”
Cue ridiculous silence from guests as camera pans the table and everyone puts on their “shocked and uncomfortable” faces. Taylor storms out, Kyle quickly behind her. Tearful conversation in bathroom ensues, interrupted by Lisa, looking witchy and saying in voice-over, “Taylor's very manipulative; now she's drawing Kyle into her drama.”
It is impossible for even an impartial observer to not parse a scene like that for indications of what we all now know is to come, which not only turns the show into a creepy necro-party game, it shatters the suspension of disbelief required for these shows to succeed.
The allure of the “Real Housewives” shows has been, in part, their celebration of the unreality of life — all those dinner party conversations that were just as manufactured and misguidedly narcissistic as the surgically altered faces, the carefully arranged décolletage, the anorexic arms that wreathed the table. But now we know that as these tableaux were constructed, as these little scenes were nursed into being, the petty tensions fed, the catty diatribes coddled, offstage a man was slowly moving toward self-destruction.
How can we now watch and think of anything else?
Photo: The "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" Taylor Armstrong, left, Camille Grammer, Kyle Richards, Lisa Vanderpump, Adrienne Maloof and Kim Richards in Season 1. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times