Whitney’s Shadow

Whitney’s Shadow Hangs Over Painful, Intrusive ‘Houstons’ Reality Show

Allison Samuels on the intrusive new Lifetime reality series about Whitney’s family premiering Wednesday.

When Whitney Houston died suddenly earlier this year at just 48 years old, it was too soon. When her sister-in-law, brother, and daughter agreed to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s cable network just three weeks later to discuss her death, it was too soon. Now, just seven months after the New Jersey native’s burial, the Houston family is starring in a new Lifetime reality show that details the pain and aftermath of the superstar’s death—and once again it’s simply too soon.

Clips from The Houstons: On Our Own, which begins airing Wednesday on the cable network, reveal a family who witnessed and endured firsthand the singer’s tragic descent into drugs and chaos but clearly never expected such an untimely end.

Using Whitney’s melodic and now haunting voice as background music, the 14-part series opens with the family visiting the singer’s grave this past Mother’s Day. Nineteen-year-old Bobbi Kristina, Houston’s only child, is seen sipping an alcoholic beverage and leaning heavily on her unofficially adopted brother-turned-fiancé, Nick Gordon. The disturbingly intrusive scene also includes Whitney’s mother, Cissy, and brother, Gary, and yet still manages to feel forced and contrived. The viewer is pained not only by the family’s loss but also by their apparent need to display that loss in such a visible way.

“When I first heard the family was doing a show, I knew it wouldn’t be a good look for them,” says Renee Olden, 34, a die-hard Houston fan from Long Beach, Calif. “Some things you just don’t want to see.”

You sure don’t.

To be fair, the Houstons aren’t the only famous musical family struggling with how to handle and share their loss and grief. Three years after the death of Michael Jackson, the pop superstar’s family is still battling over his legacy, his children, and his ever-growing fortune.

In an eerie twist, Jackson’s brothers also had a reality show shortly after his death, and though short-lived, it seemed to lack the awkward, invasive moments The Houstons: On Our Own features in abundance. One notable reason for the difference: the Jackson brothers were all relatively famous beforehand as members of the Jackson 5. Their music defined a generation and showcased their whole family’s musical talents.

The Houston family never had that exposure. Although Cissy Houston enjoyed a solid career as a backup and gospel singer, Whitney was the one and only star of the family. While Michael Jackson had younger sister Janet nipping at his heels with Grammy Awards and gold records, Whitney stood alone.

Now that she’s gone, her family appears to have no idea how to move forward and are unclear about what their Hollywood status is now. Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law, told Reuters that the show would help many understand who Whitney’s family really is. “There are preconceptions about the family that just aren’t true,” she said. “We are a strong family, a working family, and a typical family. Our family member just happens to be an icon.”

The viewing audience may get more than they bargained for. They’ll witness the much frowned-upon relationship between Bobbi Kristina and her new fiancé, a 23-year-old man Whitney raised as a child alongside Bobbi Kristina for years. The romantic union has infuriated the entire Houston clan, much as Whitney’s love affair with Bobby Brown did, and promises to be the most talked-about story line of the series.

But this new reality show will need to do much more for the Houston family than set the record straight on who they really are. Whitney was not like Michael Jackson, who owned much of his own music, as well as that of the Beatles, and wrote much of his own music. That sobering reality means a far smaller financial windfall for those she left behind. Only Bobbi Kristina was provided for in her mother’s will, and many close to Whitney say she was cash-strapped toward the end of her life.

“This is a family desperate to stay in the forefront and desperate for cash to stay there,” said a family member who asked not to be identified. “I don’t think Cissy wanted to do any of this, but she needed the money. The other family members need the money but also want to be seen and be stars.”

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Unfortunately, there are no stars in The Houstons: On Our Own, just the lingering memory of one gone too soon and the troubling image of a family still unsure of what to do next.