LOS ANGELES — “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong is sobbing uncontrollably and screaming during a lavish, Moroccan-themed party. The catalyst of the meltdown was fellow housewife Camille Grammer, who had openly discussed Taylor’s claims of abuse against husband Russell Armstrong in a previous episode. “You have no idea what she’s done to me!” Armstrong wails.
This scene from the Bravo series’ second season was all the more unsettling because viewers knew what lay ahead: Weeks after it was filmed, Russell killed himself.
Reality TV thrives on friction, but how much drama is too much? In the wake of Russell’s suicide, the network was presented with an ethical quandary that would also test the limits of viewers’ interest in reality spectacle. As it turns out, the controversy did little damage to the series’ ratings. The second-season premiere drew 2.2 million viewers, up 46 percent from the first-season debut. It has averaged 2.2 million viewers in the season that is concluding Monday night, about the same number of viewers it drew the previous season.
“It was unlike anything we had ever encountered before,” said Andy Cohen, Bravo’s executive vice president of development and talent and an executive producer on the show, reflecting on the network’s struggle to decide how to proceed.
News of the suicide in August came just as the anticipated second season was about to premiere. In the days after Russell’s death, implications and decisions were being weighed as the network faced difficult choices: scrap the season, edit Taylor and/or Russell out, or proceed with the season as planned. Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara called for the season to be canceled, writing: “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 ... offstage a man was slowly moving toward self-destruction. How can we now watch and think of anything else?”
The network brass went into lockdown for three weeks, consulting with other housewives and with the show’s producers. Ultimately, they decided to proceed with the footage more or less as they had originally planned. Taylor’s story line focused on her as woman dealing with domestic abuse and a dissolving marriage. That portrayal was among the reasons, according to Russell’s attorney Ronald Richards, that Russell was in a panic leading to the show’s premiere, in addition to the pressure and scrutiny that came along with reality TV stardom. There were also revelations of growing financial problems — Russell, a struggling entrepreneur, had racked up millions in debt after the tech bust, and, before his death, he and Taylor were hit with a lawsuit for $1.5 million for allegedly diverting investors’ money.
Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at USC and the author of “Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility,” suggests the soap opera element keeps people tuning in. “I think that for networks, the bottom line is what gets ratings,” she said. “It appears they will take it as close to the edge as they can. So if somebody is a little emotionally unstable, I think that makes for great TV. It doesn’t necessarily make for good social responsibility, but I don’t know that that’s their primary concern.”
Russell’s Season 2 “Real Housewives” appearances were fleeting but pointed. He was shown in a marriage counseling session with Taylor, growing agitated at his daughter’s birthday party, and discussing his plan to sue one of the other “Real Housewives” cast members for spreading tabloid rumors about him.
“There were some things that we left in the show, and we were very deliberate about why we left them,” Cohen said. “To ignore it or cut around some of the stuff would be to gloss over a very important topic.”
The show also aired scenes in which Taylor alleged abuse, without Russell on camera to dispute or discuss them. In the days after Russell’s death, Richards said that the family would sue the network if footage of Russell made it to air. But Richards now says the family has no plans to take legal action.
Bravo President Frances Berwick rejected the idea that the network attempted to capitalize on or sensationalize the situation. “We were covering her story line as we would with any other cast member,” she said. “I think not airing it would be ignoring a central part of her journey,” adding that there are five other “Housewives” to consider.
“They’re dealing with different issues,” she said. “Lisa (Vanderpump) is dealing with all the preparations for her daughter’s wedding and her restaurant. It’s a very dominant story line. Then the Kyle-Kim (Richards) interaction and them trying to repair their relationship, and all the things going on with Kim and her domestic situation and her health.”
Berwick also noted that Taylor has been supportive of the way the network handled the situation. Berwick said, “As Taylor has said to a certain extent, having the protection of the cameras around might have been, unfortunately, a benefit for her and a safety mechanism.”