This Show Just Got a Little Too Real: Bravo's 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills'

Taylor and the late Russell Armstrong

Bravo’s schadenfreude is such a fundamental part of Real Housewives that every episode unavoidably concerns a tragic figure that never appears on screen and cannot defend the character assassination the show perpetuates.

“Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead.”

-- Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father

A 1995 taping of daytime talk show Jenny Jones resulted in one of the most sensational flashpoints in the history of trash television. Show guest Jonathan Schmitz was invited to appear on an episode in which a secret admirer would reveal herself. That admirer turned out to be another man, Scott Amedure. Three days after the taping, Schmitz murdered Amedure with a shotgun and cited the televised ambush as the reason for his crime. The show did not air as originally scheduled, though footage from the episode appeared during the murder trial.

In a 1999 trial following Schmitz’ conviction, the Amedure family sued producers of Jenny Jones for their role in the murder. Attorney Geoffrey Fieger argued: "This is a case about exploitation and ultimately responsibility" -- that is to say the exploitation of the subject and the culpability of the producers. In her research about daytime talk shows, Laura Grindstaff uses similar language to identify two major concerns about this sort of programming: “The potential manipulation of guests by producers in the service of orchestrating dramatic money shots, and the more generalized exploitation assumed to inhere in the act of airing one’s dirty laundry on television.”

There is little evidence that any significant number of daytime talk show producers took on a greater sense of responsibility in reaction to the Jenny Jones case. Nor did the exploitation of real subjects lessen in the years since daytime talk shows were at their ratings peak. Any lessons learned, appear to have had little effect on television’s capacity to warp real lives, and reality programming has brought the exploitation to primetime. At present, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is in the running for worst offender. The death and continuing exploitation of one of the series’ husbands brings forth the objectionable values system of the corporate and creative decision-makers behind the cable network show.

As of October 2011, Russell Armstrong’s website bears a header that reads: “I am Russell Armstrong: Investment Banker & Venture Capitalist”. The accompanying biography lists his many accomplishments, identifying him as “instrumental in the development of over 200 businesses with early stage funding in excess of $2B dollars.” His contact information is available, as are a “galleria” of pictures, mostly featuring him with his glamorous wife Taylor Armstrong.

She has a website, too, and it’s even fancier than that of her husband. On it she shares her business aspirations and the narrative of her “journey from Oklahoma to Beverly Hills”, where she met Russell Armstrong, married him, and became a “real housewife.” We learn about her passions for “Beauty, Fashion, and Lifestyle”.

Taken together, these public personas combine into an intriguing, upwardly mobile couple. Yet in the months since the Armstrong’s became lead players on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, they faced financial ruin, their marriage dissolved, Taylor Armstrong accused Russell Armstrong of abuse and filed for divorce, and Russell Armstrong committed suicide. Just days after he hanged himself on 15 August 2011, Russell Armstrong’s mother said in an interview: "Before the new season even started, before he took his life, he said, 'Mom, they're just going to crucify me this season.' He said, 'I don't know what to do. I'll never survive it'. I thought he meant business or something."

Russell Armstrong’s mother was his posthumous mouthpiece, and other friends stepped forward to reveal the pressure he felt to fake a wealthy lifestyle for the show, which cast him alongside far wealthier families. Yet, to echo Fieger’s reasoning from the Jenny Jones case, it was ultimately Bravo that held the responsibility of how to represent Russell Armstrong in the second series, which was set to premiere on 5 September 2011. Would they exploit a dead man?

Less than a week before the premiere, Bravo Media President Frances Berwick acknowledged to the press that the show would go on, and that the episodes were undergoing additional editing. The obvious move would be to exclude footage of Russell Armstrong, and perhaps to remove the entire plot line concerning his and Taylor Armstrong’s marital troubles. Besides, he was hardly a major presence in the first series of the program, and his distant demeanor fed into the opinion that he was not an affectionate husband. However, problems within a marriage are like spun gold for Bravo, so the more Russell Armstrong seemed to be on the outs with Taylor Armstrong, the more central that fracture would become to the show’s overall dramatic action.

After enduring the first half of the season, I have little doubt Bravo was banking nearly everything on a second outing full of Armstrong domestic distress. Bravo’s schadenfreude is such a fundamental part of the series that every episode so far unavoidably concerns a figure who never appears on screen and who is no longer alive to defend the character assassination the show perpetuates. This, despite the fact that what’s being aired has been ostensibly edited into the most tasteful possible presentation of events. To put it plainly, this show is rotten to its core.

In episode one, text appears on the screen that indicates two weeks have passed since Russell Armstrong’s suicide. It's 29 August 2011. We see the other housewives congregate to discuss the tragedy. “Housewife” Adrienne Maloof, in reality an heiress and businesswoman worth hundreds of millions of dollars, says, “It has affected so many people and it was heartbreaking, and I feel that this is the time when all the women should get together and find a way to help support each other.” In contrast to Taylor Armstrong, Maloof is the gold standard for a Bravo Housewife. Genuinely wealthy and powerful, Maloof shows none of the insecurities of “lesser” housewives who struggle to produce a façade of privilege.

Wasting no time, the gathered housewives and their husbands somewhat sanctimoniously discuss the departed Russell Armstrong. Taylor Armstrong is not present. One of the recurring themes of their conversation is how none of them actually knew their own cast mate. Actress/”Housewife” Kyle Richards counters her husband’s statement about the selfishness of suicide by saying, “We don’t know what state of mind someone’s in to get to that place.” Marvelously wealthy English Actress/”Housewife”/Restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump remarks, “I always felt a real emotional disconnect with this man.”

Another seed that gets planted within this opening précis is recollection of Taylor Armstrong’s habitual complaining about Russell Armstrong’s mistreatment of her. The other wives attribute their unwillingness to get to know him on Taylor Armstrong’s characterization of her husband. Kyle Richards says, “I think a lot of us have some guilt about not seeing this coming”.

The final noteworthy aspect of the meeting is a surprisingly frank discussion of social pressures and specifically the pressure to keep up appearances of wealth. None of the women indicts Bravo (or at least not in any footage that made the cut), but all seem to understand that the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the homes they live in contribute to a desperate cycle of keeping up appearances. By all accounts, this is the same Bravo-enabled/enhanced charade that took a significant toll on Russell Armstrong, leading to financial duplicity and psychological undoing.

Then Kyle Richards, as if to summarize the rehashing of events, says, “But as difficult as that is, life goes on, it has to.” The line between “life” and “the show” no longer seems to exist. She might as well be saying the show must go on. The editors cannily connect her comments to the next title card that appears: “The events depicted in this series were recorded prior to the death of Russell Armstrong.” This combination of statements not only attempts to justify the continuing existence of a show that arguably contributed to suicide, but it also fallaciously excuses additional exploitation that is about to take place.

The amended opening minutes of the second series premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills put forth a values system that would be wise to follow in any reality television enterprise: that participants should get to know one another on a deep level, that they should support one another, and that they should reconsider their attachment to material things. The paradox of these late-breaking epiphanies is that they precede the series, yet none of them can alter the course of earlier, previously recorded events. If anything, the juxtaposition of these positive values with footage shot prior to the death that triggered such soul-searching, calls attention to the callous depths to which the show sank before Russell Armstrong decided to kill himself.

After the disclaimer, the negative values come flooding back via a past series one recap, full of fighting, drama, and excessive lifestyles. There’s no acknowledgment of how this montage stands in direct and potently ironic contrast to the handwringing of the previous scene. Although no one on the show has the power to change the past, the process of editing should enable the producers and story editors to retroactively frame the past series as destructive. Instead, the recap celebrates the high drama without acknowledging its grave effects.

Despite being reedited to remove Russell Armstrong, the premiere episode proceeds to indulge in the very problems outlined in the prologue. No other softening attempts appear to have been made. Signifiers of wealth surround the characters, including a scene in which Angel Champagne is served to a dog and another in which a box full of forgotten designer shoes turns up in a character’s garage. These are, in context of Russell Armstrong’s suicide, reminders of the lifestyle the failing businessman was unlikely to attain but was frantically seeking for Taylor Armstrong’s benefit, as well as the benefit of Bravo cameras.

Relationships are also already dissolving, creating portents of more serious things to come. Kyle Richards and her sister, actress/“housewife” Kim Richards, are barely on speaking terms after the first series’ blowout. Actress/“housewife” Camille Grammar is slowly and dramatically recovering from her divorce. Her ex-husband, actor Kelsey Grammar, has left her for another woman, and she self-identifies at every opportunity as a woman scorned.

The relationship between Maloof and her husband Dr. Paul Nassif is refreshingly and humorously confrontational. Their banter provides the episode’s only levity. At a dinner Maloof hosts for her cast mates, she toasts to friends keeping the peace. Yet as the first series appeared to have descended into chaos, this reunion of all of the women turns sour when Vanderpump’s husband Ken is dismissive of Taylor Armstrong’s admission that she’s in marriage therapy. He says it's a sign of weakness to have to consult a third party, and that, “It’s up to the man. If your woman’s not happy, you make her happy.” This is uncomfortably close to the sort of toxic philosophy that Russell Armstrong succumbed to, so its inclusion in a reedited premiere episode is questionable.

Taylor Armstrong says she is “deep into psychotherapy” with her husband and says that she’s finding her voice, a phrase that becomes her mantra throughout the series. Camille Grammar, meanwhile, uses every discussion of relationships to bash Kelsey Grammar. Criticism of husbands becomes a regular feature of the initial episodes of this series, with comments ranging from casual to venomous. Kelsey Grammar takes hits for his appearance, sexual prowess, and personal hygiene. He’s not on the show to defend himself, but he differs from Russell Armstrong in two significant ways: He is inarguably a public figure and he’s still alive. For these reasons, representing Kelsey Grammar through the catty comments of his ex-wife is less of an ethical concern than providing the final word on a dead man’s life.

In the same fashion as the series one recap, the series two teaser is particularly tactless, contradicting the positive values system of the post-suicide discussion and providing a virtual trail to Russell Armstrong’s death. We see a parade of wealth objects and then a succession of fights, including one new housewife’s threat to murder another. Preposterously, this threat of murder is directly followed by National Suicide Prevention Lifeline information.

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