Suicide not set aside easily on ‘Real Housewives’ premiere

Given there’s been no reports of Bravo executives being struck by lightning now that the long-awaited premiere of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has aired, their decision to go forward with the show despite the suicide of Russell Armstrong may not seem as transgressive. But if the network thinks the steps they took to reduce the “ick” factor worked, think again.

As Bravo indicated last week, the series underwent some re-editing before being brought back for its second season. The episode began with a short segment featuring all the women–with the exception of widow Taylor Armstrong–gathering days after Armstrong’s death to discuss the unexpected tragedy. The segment closed with the following message displayed across a stark black background: “The events depicted in this series were recorded prior to the death of Russell Armstrong.”

Cast member Kim Richards ended the introductory segment with a tearful statement: “It’s hard to move forward because it is such a tragic situation and so many people have been left hurt by it. But as difficult as that is, life goes on.”

If what Richards said felt like a bit much maybe it was because it brought to mind the way comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” felt compelled to address Sept. 11 with a straight face before moving on to the regularly scheduled jokes.

But the problem with the psychological firewall Bravo was trying to erect here was that it felt false. Bringing the women together as if they were genuinely mourning seemed odd given that, from what can be deduced from the show’s first season and the coverage of Armstrong’s death, there wasn’t any real connection between them and him. It also had the unintended consequence of putting these women at the center of the emotional fallout from the suicide, which is just wrong.

Compartmentalizing the mourning at the top of the show didn’t cast a pall over the rest of the hour; you’d be surprised how quickly you can forget about a suicide in the time it takes Lisa Vanderpump to let her cutey-wutey doggy Jiggy to leave her tender embrace for a leak on the sidewalk. But by the time Taylor Armstrong comes on screen, there’s a whole other unintended dimension that doesn’t go away just because Bravo made a decision to remove Russell Armstrong from the opening episode.

Even in the absence of the poor guy’s mug, his presence is very much felt given Taylor’s raison d’etre on the series is to bemoan the sorry state of her marriage. That even figures into the episode’s obligatory cast clash toward the end of the episode: Taylor gets tearful when Vanderpump’s husband, Ken, dismisses couples therapy as a “sign of weakness” after Taylor talks of taking to the couch with Russell to repair their broken bond.

Were Russell Armstrong still alive, this conflict wouldn’t have an added emotional punch. And yet you can’t help but think that he truly did suffer from some sort of “weakness” that led him down such a tragic path, and suddenly the usual schadenfreude you feel watching the show’s bickering is mixed with tougher emotions.

The episode also closes with a public-service announcement (see video above) from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It feels like something ticked off a to-do list by a crisis-management flack, nothing more.

This probably isn’t anything that hasn’t occurred to the powers that be at Bravo. They probably realize this was essentially a no-win situation and that it wasn’t about what they specifically did for this episode just as long as they did…something.

Sure, canceling the series may be the highest road they could have travelled but that was not going to happen given the bonanza of free marketing the suicide created. Bravo just has to avoid looking complicit in Armstrong’s death, and on that front, their conscience is clear. They communicate that notion simply by sticking with the show; canceling it would be tantamount to taking responsibility for the man’s death.

And yet watching the premiere even with the sense that Bravo didn’t actually do anything wrong would leave anyone feeling quite right about reality TV, either. Even f the death of Russell Armstrong isn’t quite the Jenny Jones moment for the genre, this incident does feel like the TV industry has inched itself further down a slippery slope–with rock bottom not too much farther down. 

It’s likely Russell Armstrong will be forgotten soon enough, that is until the next time something like this happens. And when it inevitably does, maybe the industry will look back at this moment and say this was when they should have reined things in. But by then it’ll be too late.