The ratings-hungry producers/exploiters of "reality" TV are in an ongoing search for "edgy" people who are combustibly watchable and whose lust for fame overrides any sense of moral judgment. Then they act shocked when their "characters" self-destruct.
The latest, exhibit A: the suicide by hanging of Russell Armstrong, the husband of one of Bravo's "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." His death came just weeks before Bravo planned to begin airing its second season, in which he would be ridiculed before millions.
Sadly, this isn't the first time. There was the boxer from NBC's 2005 program "The Contender" who shot himself before the series aired. A chef from a Gordon Ramsey "Kitchen Nightmares" episode on Fox jumped off a bridge last year. Just before Armstrong killed himself, there was the 22-year-old man from France's version of "Big Brother" who walked in front of a car on Aug. 10, reportedly because "he could not readjust to life in the outside world."
Sometimes, the networks do the right thing. When Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on VH-1's planned series "Megan Loves a Millionaire," brutally murdered his wife and then hanged himself as the police closed in, VH-1 canned the show. Others are shameless. "Reality" show boss Mark Burnett infamously dismissed the boxer's suicide during his filming of "The Contender." Stop the show? "I'm not even going to make any edits (to the show) because it's real."
Translation: deaths on my cast might be the best thing that ever happened for the ratings of my show.
Bravo and parent company NBC Universal displayed unlimited shamelessness when it exploited Michelle Salahi's infamous crashing of a White House party for their series "The Real Housewives of DC." Will they now descend even deeper to exploit Russell Armstrong's suicide for ratings?
Tom Gliatto, a TV critic for People magazine, pleaded against it: "The fact remains that public interest in the show is now higher than ever. But, in a better world, Bravo would just go ahead and scrap not just the season, but the entire series. And I say that as a fan of the show."
Gliatto added, "It may very well be that his death would have happened without press scrutiny, without (his wife) Taylor's overnight fame and the disturbing revelations about his abusive behavior, but the possibility can't be eliminated" — a sound, sober analysis.
Instead, Bravo announced no plans to scrap the show. They've instructed all the surviving cast members to grant no interviews. Bravo is hoping to control the message through silence, and may succeed, but there is the historical record, and it may prove to be a legal nightmare for the network.
In an interview with People a few weeks before his death, Armstrong admitted that "Real Housewives" was ruining his actual reality. "It got really overwhelming," he told the magazine. "When you get a TV show involved, and all the pressure — it just takes it to a whole new level...We were pushed to extremes."
Armstrong's family is reportedly considering filing a lawsuit against Bravo for contributing to the emotional state that led to his suicide. In response, snarky Bravo defenders in Hollywood gossip circles are mocking the mourning family for granting too many interviews. When you're a Hollywood sleaze, everyone's motives are dark. No one can be imagined as having a conscience.
In a preview tape sent to TV critics this summer, Bravo displayed a scene reuniting their "housewives" that ended with Taylor distraught and crying in the bathroom over the sorry state of her marriage. After that scene, another housewife typically suggested the tears were just phony waterworks for attention. Even if Bravo deleted scenes like this, it shows just how cruelty is the bread and butter of most reality shows.
The way that Hollywood scripts these programs, there is no way Bravo won't spend an entire second season (and maybe a third) milking Taylor's reaction to and potential recovery from her husband's suicide. There's a reason why The Washington Post asked after this suicide if joining a "reality" show is like "making a deal with the devil." When Bravo executives and producers seem just as happy to watch you die as live, they certainly look evil.
At The Wrap blog, Mali Perl summed up the toll of "reality" TV makers: "What amazes me is that even now, when we can longer hide behind the naivet‚ of not knowing quite how this newfangled machine works, there is still a seemingly unlimited amount of people not just willing but eager to get caught up and mangled in its gears."