The magazine world needs reformation. Unflattering magazine profiles have injured the public trust. Magazine editors should follow an ethical code so that they will minimize potential harm. After all, an extremely critical Vanity Fair profile of his wife is what drove Kurt Cobain to suicide. That’s what his Courtney Love said of Lynn Hirschberg, who wrote the 1992 article about her that allegedly pushed Kurt over the edge: “She humiliated and emasculated him,” Love contends. “She deserves most of the blame for his death.”
That may sound like specious reasoning, especially coming from Courtney Love, but that’s the same argument that many writers and thinkers are making about reality TV shows and the networks that air them in the wake of Russell Armstrong’s alleged suicide. Armstrong was the estranged husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and his sister blames Bravo—the way Love blamed Hirschberg—for Russell’s suicide. The show made him look terrible, she argues. Reality TV should be reformed, some writers are saying; others suggest that producers who want to create quality content should follow a code of ethics.
Though his suicide is alarming and tragic, Armstrong was a savvy venture capitalist, a grown man who signed up the show on his own volition. It does not seem like Armstrong was outwardly unstable when he agreed to be featured on the reality show, and it’s not Bravo’s responsibility to predict how someone will react to minor celebrity. Furthermore, there were clearly forces outside of the TV show that contributed to Armstrong’s distress. He was allegedly experiencing severe financial difficulties—and a business associate of Armstrong’s, who was not featured on the Real Housewives, committed suicide just a day after Armstrong hanged himself. At most, Bravo exacerbated the problem—but who knows whether the demise of Armstrong’s marriage would have hit him extremely hard without the cameras around.
There were rumors that Bravo might delay the premiere of season two of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in light of Armstrong’s death. But they decided to go ahead with the debut as planned tonight. Producers did edit in a new beginning, one in which the housewives, sans Russell Armstrong’s wife, Taylor, discuss his suicide. The women—all of whom are usually filmed sparring over expensive cocktails—laid down their manicured talons to express their grief in a five-minute segment. “All he ever wanted to be was a venture capitalist and when it went down the tubes, it was too much for him,” Kyle Richards said. The other women clucked in sympathy and tried to make their filler-filled faces look sad. It was uncomfortable, and it felt false.
Armstrong’s death certainly cast a pall over the rest of the episode—as it probably should. Of course there was the usual bickering and a really bizarre competition between Adrienne Maloof and Lisa Vanderpump over whose dog had the best outerwear. There’s a tense, depressing dinner party scene where Lisa’s husband, Ken, calls Taylor and Russell “weak” for going to therapy to try to mend their marriage. Taylor becomes understandably upset, and it’s difficult to watch. Certainly the giddy, champagne-headache buzz one usually gets from the Housewives’ distinct brand of frivolity was absent tonight.
I won’t be going out of my way to watch this season (I never got into the original Beverly Hills season and I’m not about to start). But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be aired, or even enjoyed by the fans of this program. Bravo is telling a story, the way that magazine journalists regularly tell stories—and this involves editing to create a narrative. Lots of people might not think stories about shallow women and their catfights are particularly “worthy” documentary programming, but no one’s forcing them to watch it.