Russell Armstrong’s suicide made this season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills incredibly controversial—but it’s been fascinating and important TV, writes Kate Aurthur.
I’ve learned so much from Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise—about debt and foreclosure; about the erratic parenting of narcissists and the terrible things that happen to children when they have no privacy; and about hidden addictions. I’ve also marveled at how much someone can put up with in a marriage until she’s on a reality show that illuminates—and, I imagine, prods her into thinking—that perhaps there is another way. (The divorce rate across the seven editions of the shows is incredibly high.)
The most practical gift Real Housewives has given me, however, is the ability to sniff out a lie. I had never been good at that in my life. But we viewers watch the ladies lying constantly—to their husbands and to their children, but mostly to each other. And then in a confessional interview directly addressing the audience, they will say, “I lied to so-and-so because [insert insane reason here].” The sounds of their voices, the words they use, the tiny movements in their mostly immobilized faces, paired with the immediate knowledge of and explanation for the lie—well, not to brag, but I now have some skills.
All throughout the first season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which premiered in October 2010, the dead-eyed con artist Russell Armstrong, who committed suicide in mid-August, seemed like a liar to me. So did his wife, cast member Taylor Armstrong. And as the second season played out, during which we saw a highly edited version of the dissolution of their marriage and the events that presumably led to his decision to kill himself, she still does. (The season finale was last Monday; tonight, Bravo will air the first of three cast-reunion episodes, which are usually really crazy.)
How riveting it was to watch, even as Bravo and the show’s producers had to work quickly—Russell’s suicide was three weeks before the season premiere—to sanitize a major plot of the season: Taylor’s failed attempts to work out her relationship with her husband (she filed for divorce in July). Critics I respect wanted Bravo to axe the entire season before it even aired, and others were repulsed throughout its run. I’ve felt the opposite; to me, scripted television has never done anything this enthralling.
For the first eight episodes of the season, we did not see Russell at all. Instead, the specter of his suicide hovered as Taylor fell apart in front of the other cast members. She was too thin, which was constantly, angrily remarked upon by the ladies. And on a trip to Colorado with the group, she was bowled over by an altitude sickness/alcohol combo that rendered her literally babbling. Reduced to primordial matter, Taylor was self-pitying (“I was the girl that, if you were going to bet on someone, I would never bet on me”); semi-confessional (she obliquely said she wouldn’t end her marriage out of fear for her daughter’s safety); and, finally, bitchy (she decided someone stole her makeup bag, which, of course, no one had).
When The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills finally did begin showing Russell, during an extremely uncomfortable dinner he and Taylor had with Kyle Richards and her husband, Mauricio, hoo boy. At dinner parties, in his and Taylor’s filmed couples’ therapy, and even at their daughter’s birthday party, Russell acted like a seething, litigious, man on the verge.
It’s been an unprecedented character study, and truly great television.
I am, I realize, writing ill of the dead as well as the widowed. I don’t feel bad about it. Russell was a serial wife abuser and a thieving “venture capitalist”; Taylor, it appears, may have been in on his grifter activities and, in September peddled her first post-Russell’s suicide interview to Entertainment Tonight, as well as photos of her beaten face, for a reported $125,000. Before all of this came out, and their lives were ruined, these striver fabulists had signed themselves and their then 4-year-old daughter up for a reality show. What were they thinking?
At the beginning of the much-scrutinized season premiere in September, Bravo hastily assembled a group session in which the cast, minus Taylor, discussed Russell’s suicide. No one said anything meaningful except for the almost-always-right Lisa Vanderpump, who never could stand Russell and has generally thought of Taylor as a manipulative sneak. Lisa, being a confident person, wasn’t about to pretend otherwise, even in those circumstances. The whole segment was bizarre and awkward, and mercifully short.
But what it did do was solidify that the now-concluded season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the closest TV can get to a Memento-like narrative, beginning with the end. It’s always a fractured experience to watch a season of Real Housewives, since the gossip press follows the casts’ foibles so closely—TMZ and Us are nearly required ancillary materials for the audience. We see Teresa Giudice from New Jersey spending thousands of dollars on her kid’s hideous birthday party, knowing she will declare bankruptcy; Camille Grammer from Beverly Hills lords her marriage to kazillionaire Kelsey over everyone, but we know he cheated on her and she’s getting dumped soon enough. The thrill of foreknowledge was part of the pleasure of MTV’s The Hills, too, but that show was so faked that it was hard not to feel like a sucker for caring.
A few months ago, Taylor appeared on a local Los Angeles morning show known for its happy talk. The co-hosts grilled her lightly about why she had ever agreed to be on Real Housewives, clearly wanting her to turn on Bravo and blame the show for Russell’s suicide. But Taylor wouldn’t budge, and instead said that had she not participated, Russell might have murdered her and their daughter, and then killed himself.
“I have my daughter here today,” she said. “And by the grace of God, and perhaps reality TV, I’m sitting here and so is she.”
Mind-blowing. Has it really come to this unsettling moment, culturally, in terms of our relationship to fame and cameras? It’s hard to know what’s true when it’s Taylor talking, after all.
But just hearing her say that and watching this story unfold, I feel like I felt when reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours or watching Todd Haynes’s movie Safe: excited.