"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" shocked viewers last night by setting aside its ongoing story line and delving into the suicide of cast member Russell Armstrong headfirst. The second season premiere was a wide-ranging, commercial-free hour that spoke frankly of the tragedy's effect on the cast and crew, the behind-the-scenes reaction, and the ethical questions raised in its aftermath.
Just kidding. They barely talked about it at all. Seriously, what did you expect?
The episode started with the housewives convening at the home of cast members Paul and Adrienne Maloof. "I don't think any of us saw any sign of this [coming], and that's why it's such a shock," Adrienne Maloof said to the group, which conspicuously did not include Russell Armstrong's widow, Taylor. "We don't know what state of mind a person's in to get to that point," said Kyle Richards.
The sequence was brief and muted, no doubt because the discussion was, too; given reality TV's tendency to tease out and highlight every tiny glimmer of emotion as if it were a frame from the Zapruder film, it seems inconceivable that a lot of big moments got cut out.
After that came a brief on-screen title noting that this week's events were filmed before the suicide. From then on, it was business as usual: Kyle and her husband, Mauricio, moving into a bigger house (because God knows the one they're in isn't big enough); Adrienne throwing a viewing party to celebrate Camille's cameo on the now-defunct "$#*! My Dad Says"; the weird rivalry between the Maloofs and the Vanderpumps over their dogs (the Maloofs have a new puppy, Jackpot, which at one point gets dressed up in what looks like tiny bondage gear).
There were no pictures of Russell Armstrong on the show, nor did the producers cut to footage of him at any point.
"Life goes on," Kyle said in the opening scene. "It has to."
But the show's cursory treatment of such a huge event -- an event that disrupted the illusion of a present-tense narrative, became an international news story and was lurking right at the front of every viewer's consciousness during the premiere -- seems, well, rather odd.
I'm not talking about the reaction of the cast members as they convened to discuss a shocking development on camera; the housewives, their spouses and their friends are the richest of the rich, very much inclined to keep up appearances, and their tamped-down reactions were consistent with that. I'm talking about the reaction of the series itself, which was almost nonexistent.
Over 10 years ago, "Survivor" contestant Michael Skupin burned his hands in a campfire so badly that he had to be airlifted out of the game. The incident was a disproportionately huge news story -- "Survivor" was a very big deal at the time -- and the series responded with a harrowing and masterfully constructed episode that gave us a strong sense of what it must have been like to have been there when the accident occurred. Last year, "Deadliest Catch" devoted a full hour to the death of one of its major characters, Captain Phil Harris. There are countless other examples of unscripted TV shows either integrating shocking real-life developments into their narratives or stopping the narrative entirely in order to address them. And the show's producers were all over the place, issuing statements, doing interviews and talking about what happened as frankly as they could.
To put it mildly, that didn't happen on "Real Housewives." The series talked around the event, then pushed it into the background.
And it probably goes without saying that the program never turned the camera on itself. There was zero acknowledgment that what we're seeing isn't a documentary, or even a zoological curiosity like the original reality series "An American Family," but a hybrid documentary-drama in which events are contrived and manipulated to create conflict and give the editors colorful footage to futz around with.
At no point did "Real Housewives" pull back the curtain and let us look around backstage and see reality rather than "reality." Maybe such an approach is beyond the series' intellectual or imaginative power. Maybe they're saving it for a sweeps month special. Or maybe everyone involved in the series is so lawyered up right now that we should consider that tepid opening sequence a miraculous departure from the show's norm. In any case, it would appear that early reports of a "special" about the suicide were greatly exaggerated.
When Kyle said life must go on, I think she meant the show.