Reality TV: A blood sport that must change

The suicide of a "Real Housewives" husband cracks the glossy veneer of a ruthless franchise

Published August 18, 2011 2:59PM (EDT)

Russell Armstrong died in an arena.

The type of so-called reality show represented by the "Real Housewives" franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show's appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants -- or "cast members," as they are revealingly labeled -- suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw.

It's time to get real about reality TV.  As your parents may have warned you, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. People are getting hurt.

Armstrong, the estranged husband of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Taylor Armstrong, commited suicide on Monday. Friends have said the show changed him, that the pressure of having his marital strains examined on national TV and the financial stress of keeping up with much wealthier cast members all contributed to his emotional collapse.

For years now, we have pretended that these shows are harmless train-wreck fun. That can't continue. We need to ask, What does this unnatural environment do to the psyches of people who inhabit it? And what does it do to us as we watch?

Of course, Armstrong might have killed himself whether he was on a TV show or not. Suicide is a mysterious thing. "You just never really know if a person is going to do something like that," said Licia Ginne, a Santa Monica-based marriage and family therapist who numbers a few celebrities among her clients. "Sometimes it takes everyone by surprise, even people who thought they really knew the person."

But I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that being on a TV show like "Real Housewives" -- which demands a continual supply of high-intensity "conflict" of its cast members on-screen, and turns them into tabloid fodder between seasons -- might have been harmful to the mental health of Russell Armstrong, or anyone who was close to him.

Armstrong's wife, Taylor, filed for divorce last month, and has also cited physical abuse. Just two weeks ago Radar Online published a piece revealing that Russell Armstrong had two restraining orders filed against by him, and pleaded guilty to battery in 1997. These are seismic personal events when they happen in private. Their psychological intensity can only be magnified by having the details laid out by the media, especially when the subject has little experience at being a public figure.

Beyond private physical and emotional violence, the family was also dealing with financial problems that directly led to their decision to take part in the show, even after Russell Armstrong said that the program's previous season was a miserable experience for him. The stress, Armstrong told People magazine, "got really overwhelming ... 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 members are probably going to sue the show and its distributor, Bravo, a cable divison of NBC Universal. "Russell's dad doesn't want to talk about what happened to him with a lot of people, but everyone in the family thinks that Bravo is to blame," said Armstrong's brother-in-law, Wade Jackson.

It goes without saying that the Armstrong family's culpability in this tragedy is considerable.

But first let's acknowledge that Armstrong is far from the first person to suffer surreal, intense and -- here's that word again -- unnatural misery while taking part in an unscripted TV show. Nor is he the first reality show contestant to commit suicide.  The list of crimes and misdemeanors, crackups and meltdowns related to reality show contestants is endless, and endlessly depressing.

Bottom line: Everybody who participates in this show is the electronic-age equivalent of a gladiator or boxer. The genre has been around in a big way for over two decades. Everybody -- the combatants, the arena owners, the power brokers in the box seats, and the crowd in the virtual stands -- knows full well what they're part of. It's blood sport. And when you participate in blood sport -- either as a contestant or as a spectator -- you have to accept the hard reality of what it does to everyone involved.

These shows thrive on concocted conflict. The participants are chosen based on their willingness to say and do the most ugly, unpleasant and extreme things to each other while cameras roll. Nobody gets selected to be on a show like this because they seem reasonable and well-adjusted, except as contrasted with other participants who scheme, lie, showboat, abuse and manipulate friends and family, and otherwise behave in ways that would get them fired from work, ostracized by their peers, arrested by police or strongly urged to seek counseling immediately for fear of hurting themselves, their loved ones or society.

Sociopaths and delusional narcissists are the most valuable candidates, and seriously troubled or emotionally damaged people are sought after, too. They jazz up these shows' concocted environments -- which may look like a vague facsimile of reality but are actually not natural at all -- and give the less volatile characters somebody to loathe and fight with. Whoever these people were before they went on TV, once they're on our screens they become villains, pills, clowns and sad sacks. You can cheer them, root against them, and laugh at them rather than with them. You could say they're basically non-professional actors were it not for the fact that they are, in some sense, playing themselves -- or simplified and distorted versions of themselves -- then carrying the performance off-screen with them at all times, whether they want to or not.

"People are attracted to reality television because they know it has real consequences," editor Andy Dehnart told me yesterday. "You get the sense this is a real human being who could be hurt or injured."

We don't tune in to see these people work through their problems in an orderly, rational way. We tune in to see them one-up each other, stab each other in the back, poach each other's lovers, tell each other off, and so forth. We're in for the combat, the suffering, the craziness.

These shows are Roman coliseums that we visit virtually -- showcases for emotional blood sport, aimed at sedentary people who are much more likely to spend their days staring at computer screens, TVs and iPhones than toiling in the fields.

Government censorship or regulation is not the answer -- it almost never is, not in any situation having to do with entertainment.

But there are a few cold facts about this subgenre that the shows' producers and distributors may need to start confronting across the board, in every corner of TV -- and they can all be grouped beneath the heading of "mental health."

Unscripted shows encourage, and sometimes cause, emotional damage. That's the whole point of their existence -- the reason they get on the air, the reason we watch and discuss them. They record intense, bizarre, sometimes ginned-up conflicts during production. They transform the participants into caricatures of themselves in the editing room, and in some cases shade the truth of what happened or flat-out make stuff up. (As an editor friend who has cut a few of these shows told me, "I have edited quite a few things that just didn't happen.") And they turn these previously unknown people into instant celebrities whose lives are scrutinized as relentlessly, and often cruelly, as those of politicians, rock stars and professional athletes.

Boxers, football players and other participants in contact sports have corner men and doctors on hand to nurse their wounds, and determine if they are fit enough to step in the ring in the first place and remain there until the end of the bout.

It seems sensible that any distributor that decides to make money from an unscripted program like "Housewives" -- part of subgenre I call the "zoo show," because they place real people in hothouse environments, or well-lit virtual cages, in order to scrutinize their reactions under stress -- should have two layers of psychological monitoring in place:

1. A pre-show screening process that would try to determine, however imprecisely, if a person is psychologically able to withstand this type of experience;

2. Therapists or psychologists on staff who would be charged with monitoring the participants' mental health during and after production, and looking out for their well-being.

These mental health professionals should be independent consultants who are contractually empowered to recommend whatever they think is best for the people on the show, regardless of what the producers or the distributors need to make exciting entertainment.

They can't be in league with the show's producers, as is often the case -- a scenario that's not unlike that of a football player being treated by an official team doctor, who will always be torn between telling the player to take a few weeks off to recover, or zapping him with painkillers and putting him back out onto the field.

(I left several phone messages with Bravo yesterday asking what psychological precautions, if any, the "Real Housewives" franchise takes, but Bravo was in lockdown mode, and my calls were not returned.)

In some cases, individual participants in these programs already have their own private therapists. But both the therapists and their patients might have selfish reasons for endorsing choices and behaviors that are, to put it mildly, not conducive to mental health.

These two layers -- pre-show screening and psychological monitoring during production -- should be a moral and legal imperative. Right now, it's not.

And yet, as Reality Blurred editor Dehnart told me yesterday, it's more common for broadcast network shows such as "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" to do this, because they have bigger production budgets than cable shows.

"The big network shows will have a dedicated person who works on the show and who is there during production," Dehnart said. "This is true of 'Survivor' and most other big shows ... Networks are more risk-averse, where the smaller cable channels are a lot more cavalier in the risks they'll take. It's an expense to have [mental health professionals] on location, and it's an expense to have them screening people beforehand."

Dehnart says that the producers of A&E's "Hoarders" -- a pop therapeutic show about people trying to break their addiction to hoarding -- have mental health professionals involved in production, then pay for another six to nine months of therapy after an episode wraps. "But that is really unusual for a television show, offering after-care. They do it because they are dealing with people who are mentally ill, and exposing their mental illness on television."

Most other unscripted shows arguably exploit mentally ill -- or at least emotionally fragile -- people, yet they lack the moral compass of "Hoarders."

Yesterday I asked a story editor on a long-running dating series who did not want her name used in this story if, during her years of working on these shows, she had ever heard a producer express authentic concern for a participant's well-being as a person rather than an abstracted "character." She laughed and said, "No. That just doesn't happen. If anybody working on this kind of show thought that way, it would make the shows less entertaining, and that person would lose their job."

Dehnart said TV producer Chris Cowan ("Temptation Island," "Joe Millionaire") told him that while his shows have mental-health professionals involved in production, they serve the producers as well as the contestants. "He uses the psychologists on location as assets, and will consult them and ask them, 'What can we do that will make things go well?'"

"Go well," of course, is a euphemism for "make things as exciting as possible."

This double-agent phenomenon is common during pre-screenings, too. A "Big Brother" contestant whom Dehnart interviewed for a recent Playboy magazine article about reality shows "said one of the psychologists [during a pre-screening] told him, essentially, 'Your testing showed you are way too normal to be on this show. You're not weird enough.' Not that they would take somebody who was really mentally ill to begin with, but it is obvious that they look for a degree of unusualness ... If this guy Russell and his wife had a quiet, functional, easy marriage, would they have ended up on ['Real Housewives']? Probably not."

"When you watch these shows, I think you don't get the actual person, you get this distorted perspective that these people have of themselves, a perspective which is then manipulated and capitalized on by the networks to make money," Ginne said. "That's what makes them so fascinating. On an episode of 'Housewives,' a character will say of another character, 'So-and-so stirs the pot.' Then they'll cut to another person and they say of the other one, 'She stirs the pot. Then they cut to another person: 'She stirs the pot.' They all stir the pot! You see people constantly talking about who they think they are, but it's not really describing their behavior. There's a mismatch, and the show encourages that and thrives on it. That's what rivets people."

I told Ginne that I was going to use this piece to argue in favor of two layers of psychological screening for the more intense unscripted series. She told me she thought it was a decent idea in the abstract, but probably impossible to implement, for several reasons.

First, therapists or psychologists who get intimately involved in these shows are often looking to raise their own profiles, not look out for individual patients. "That's a lot of what therapists are trying to do now. It's sort of a mirror of what the people on the shows are thinking: How do I get to this big money level? How do I get to this level of fame?"

Second, any mental health professional who is paid by a network or cable channel might feel obligated to act in the interest of the show's producers, purposefully or subconsciously, no matter how scrupulous he or she was off camera, because anybody who routinely recommended choices that make a show less exciting would lose their job.

One could also argue, of course, that no responsible mental health professional would endorse a troubled person's decision to go on a reality show in the first place.

"All this stuff reminds me of the movie 'Network,' where a news anchor has gone insane, where he's 'mad as hell,'" Ginne said. "He's melting down on the air. And this network executive played by William Holden is saying to his co-workers, 'Hey, this guy is having a nervous breakdown on the air,' and the network is saying, 'Yeah, but it makes us money.' That's what we're looking at here. As long as something makes money for somebody, they will continue to do it, and they will always be able to find somebody to support it. They will always be able to find a psychologist who will look at somebody and go, 'It's all right. He seems fine.'"

Teresa Cotsirilos contributed to this piece.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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