The Greatest Love of All

Being Bobby Brown is a shamelessly intimate portrait of a celebrity marriage.

Despite almost universally dreadful reviews  (the Hollywood Reporter called it “undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television”) the new reality series Being Bobby Brown has emerged as one of the biggest new shows  in Bravo’s 25-year history. Why do so many people want to watch a ‘90s R & B has-been and his haggard, drug-addicted pop-star wife (Whitney Houston checked into rehab shortly after the series was filmed) shamble from jailhouse to courtroom to luxury resort, all for the benefit of a camera crew? Do you really need to ask?

Loving every minute of fame
Loving every minute of fame

Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution solicited reader opinions about Being Bobby Brown (largely filmed in and around Atlanta, where Brown and Houston live), and one reader nailed the show’s appeal: “I think this is a hot mess.” That’s it exactly; Brown and Houston are simultaneously larger than life and as regular as they come. They’re coarse and vulgar and unapologetically greedy, but they truly seem to enjoy each other’s company, and after 13 years of marriage, they still find each other hilariously funny and hot as hell. After the two order up half the menu in a fancy Atlanta restaurant, Bobby asks his wife over dinner, “Do you think I can impregnate you tonight?” “Bobby, you’ve been impregnatin’ me over the last week,” she replies. In a hotel gift shop, trying on sunglasses, the two break into spontaneous hip-grinding as the clerk blinks at the camera in bafflement.

The premiere episode moved from Boston to Atlanta to the Bahamas, as a fresh-out-of-jail Brown (who had just done 33 days for probation violations including spousal battery and delinquent child support) visited his children from an earlier relationship before flying down to Atlanta to reunite with Whitney and their 12-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina. (Beware the ego of any celebrity who, like Michael Jackson, names not one but two of his children after himself—Brown also has a son named Bobby.)

There’s something pitiable yet endearing about how much Bobby Brown enjoys being famous. He just likes it, every minute of it. He reveals his identity to two strangers in a restaurant (“you might not recognize me without the orange jumpsuit”), and enjoys being interrupted by gushing fans during a family dinner. His wife is clearly more ambivalent about public display (though she was evidently exhibitionist enough to agree to this series and seems to enjoy serenading the cameramen with snatches of song). In a typical scene, as Whitney and the kids take a dip in a hotel pool that’s been closed to the public for their privacy, Bobby lingers outside the hotel to schmooze and pose for pictures with rubberneckers (some of whom mistake him for Usher or Puff Daddy). He helpfully explains to the camera crew: “Me, I got into the business for people. But not my wife, man. She got into it to sing. So, you want a picture with me? Cool. You want a picture with her? I doubt it.”

Draped in headscarves and brandishing a cigarette, the skeletal Houston seems constantly on the edge of a ghetto-diva breakdown; she snaps at fans to leave her alone (“Ma’am, I’m eating. Do you see me eating?”) and bursts into tears at the mere mention of her late father’s name. But it’s hard to feel sorry for Whitney, with her raunchy mouth and throaty, cackling laugh; she comes off as a show-business survivor, and to gauge by recent headlines, she and Bobby are ready to go forth and procreate once more.

Brown has no qualms about trading on his wife’s greater star power to augment his own. In last night’s episode, he introduced himself to the Dalai Lama thusly: “Mr. Lama? Mr. Lama? I’m Bobby Brown. I’m Whitney Houston’s husband.” Displaying a similarly delusional miscalculation of his level of fame, he told USA Today: “We’re two powerful entertainers that are in love.”

Lauren Zalaznick, Bravo’s president, also talked up the show in starry-eyed terms: “Bravo is committed to providing programming that goes deep into the internal worlds of creative people.” Being Bobby Brown obeys that edict to the letter; it gets right up in its subjects’, um, worlds, especially in that now-infamous moment in the second episode when Bobby fondly reminisces about helping out his wife with her constipation. I can’t quote the line—it’s too embarrassing—but Defamer has a screen cap here.

Bobby continues to push the limits of the audience’s need to know when he asks a pharmacist for some Preparation H, stipulating, “It’s not for my butt.” Instead, he dabs the ointment on the bags under his eyes, explaining that he had a late night: “I hadn’t seen my wife for 30-something days, and you know how we do.” Thanks to this show, we do, indeed, know exactly how they do: “Get your ass upstairs,” Bobby tells Whitney upon their long-awaited reunion. “I’m gonna show you what I’m gonna do with it.” Being Bobby Brown viewers can take their choice: Do they prefer to feel superior to the Browns’ high-flying, hard-loving, trash-talking lifestyle, or to envy it? For my part, I’ll probably do a little of both. But will I stop watching? To quote an odd expression that Whitney Houston seems keen to make her trademark: “Hell to the no!”