One imagines the promo will pretty much write itself.
“Don’t miss a moment of the high fashion, high drama and hijinks as Real Housewives of Beverly Hills returns for Season 2. Join the pampered princesses of the world’s most famous Zip code as they struggle with questions all the money in the world cannot answer. Can sisters Kim and Kyle repair their broken relationship after last season’s fight? Can Camille find happiness in her new life without Kelsey? And, what will Taylor do when she finds out her estranged husband committed suicide after seeing his private life played out as a cheesy soap opera to sell hemorrhoid medicine and feminine hygiene products to a mass audience?”
Maybe you find the foregoing an unsuitably cynical response to last week’s news that a fellow named Russell Armstrong hanged himself and that people around him blame it on the pressures of seeing his wife, reality star Taylor Armstrong file for divorce as his finances crumbled (the L.A. Times calls him a “struggling entrepreneur” with a $12 million debt) and an audience looked on. But it seems to me the real cynicism is embodied in a TV show’s decision to treat people’s actual lives and misfortunes as entertainment.
“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I think, was [Russell’s] downfall,” a friend named William Ratner told the Los Angeles Times. “The TV show put a lot of pressure on him to produce financially. You’re on a show with a couple like the Maloofs, who are verifiable billionaires, and you’re not.” The reference was to “Housewife” Adrienne Maloof, whose family owns the Sacramento Kings basketball team.
“The program itself,” Russell’s mother, John Ann Hotchkiss, told CNN’s Headline News, “just really brought him down.” She said her son was constantly bashed on the show and could do nothing about it because the conflict generated ratings. “All the network cares about are ratings. They don’t care how people feel.”
Nor is Russell reality TV’s first meltdown. Jon and Kate Gosselin got divorced. Singer Fantasia Barrino tried to commit suicide. Danielle Staub thought about it.
“I was very close to taking my own life — not just on one occasion — it’s been several times,” the former cast member of Real Housewives of New Jersey recently told Entertainment Tonight. “I don’t have words to describe how alone you feel when everybody’s coming at you and judging you — and they don’t even know you.”
Now there’s this. And you wonder if, even at this price, we will finally realize that other people’s lives are not a car crash we slow down to watch on the freeway.
This brand of television is the moral equivalent of those “bum fight” videos where homeless men are paid to scrap on camera and the video is posted online. There is something similarly predatory in searching out these troubled people, these drunks and narcissists, these self-centered, superficial plastic surgery junkies, these screechers and whiners and perpetual adolescents with daddy, esteem or anger management issues, and paying them to let us watch as they implode. There is something reprehensible in the watching, too.
“Reality,” they call it. Well, a man is dead and it looks like TV played a part.
Is that real enough?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.