Bravo has an incredibly difficult decision to make regarding how to re-edit “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” in the wake of Russell Armstrong’s suicide Monday. Though he was a fairly marginal character in terms of screen time, his wife, Taylor Armstrong, is one of the series’ stars, and her marital strife with him was to be a prominent storyline in the second season, just as it was in the first.
Whether Bravo deserves it or not, the perception exists that this show contributed to the mindstate that led to this man’s suicide. That’s why the network needs to proceed ever so cautiously. Just because a lawsuit from Armstrong’s estate is unlikely given the show’s participants sign contracts that give the network permission to do just about anything with footage doesn’t mean Bravo won’t lose a verdict in the court of public opinion.
As Bravo Media president Frances Berwick wisely indicated this morning, the network simply can’t air the series as is. It has to demonstrate moral restraint of some kind or risk backlash, maybe even advertiser pullout. And let’s not forget the Comcast factor. The new parent company for NBCUniversal runs a clean shop. They aren’t going to go for anything too sordid.
While that might lead you to believe they’ll just pull the entire season, Comcast is also a business. If such a move were to blow too big a hole in Bravo’s ad-revenue projections, they’ll figure out a way to make the show work with the right editing.
And so the show probably will go on. That’s not as courageous as it might sound; the morbid truth of the matter is that the suicide functions as a bonanza of marketing. People who have never even watched the show before may now tune in out of curiosity. Bravo needs to figure out a way to both satisfy that curiosity but not act as if they are doing exactly that. That means somehow addressing Russell in the season premiere but not overdoing it.
The most obvious move is for Bravo to remove Russell from the series. That’s not as simple as it seems though. They can’t just edit him out because they are still left with his wife. Is there a material difference to excising his image but still allowing the wife to reference marital troubles at every turn? Not really, but removing him is at least a symbolic nod to sensitivity. If they keep him in there will be endless howling from Armstrong’s family and lawyer that will make Bravo look bad.
Removing her and him — really getting rid of the storyline entirely — could be just as tricky because there are probably hours of scenes completely unrelated to the storyline in which Taylor is there.
That’s still a possibility though because she can in effect be demoted to a lesser role on the show; she’d be in plenty of innocuous scenes but not carry her own storyline. This may become entirely feasible especially if some of the other new women on the series who aren’t quite featured players on the show yet, including Brandi Glanville and Dana Wilkey, have enough unused footage to tap them for full-time status.
All these considerations are prompted by the prevailing impulse to eliminate any trace of this sordid episode from our collective memory banks. But perhaps that’s not necessarily the way to go here.
While it might seem most tasteful to simply wipe away any reference to spousal abuse from “Housewives,” is it really? If you’re an advocate for this issue as Taylor Armstrong has been in the past, what kind of message does it send to bury footage that can illuminate the problem? She and the network would get points for courage and high-mindedness while still satisfying the tabloid undercurrent that would drive viewership.
Perhaps the best way for Bravo to deal with it is to concentrate the Armstrongs’ storyline into just one or two episodes and present them as “special” episodes on the important subject of spousal abuse. Run it with a public-service announcement tacked to the end.
That way the network can capitalize on the macabre interest the Armstrongs would draw to the series without having that tone take over the entire season. Get it out of the way, then shift gears, returning “Housewives” to its regularly scheduled frothiness.
Whatever the network chooses to do, it’s going to take some editing so the chances of “Housewives” sticking to its Sept. 5 premiere date are slim. But Bravo may not want to push the “Housewives” premiere too far off into the future and risk seeing interest cool in the Armstrongs, which in our short-attention-span culture, is a certainty.
At the very least, Bravo has to have Taylor Armstrong in its corner supporting whatever decision is made. Having a grieving widow complain publicly would be about as bad as this could possibly play out.