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'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' in Doubt After a Too-Real Death

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Bravo is reportedly weighing what to do with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills after news emerged that Russell Armstrong, an estranged husband of one of the show’s leads, was found dead on Monday from an apparent suicide. Armstrong was a recurring figure on the reality soap, one of whose story lines involved his strained marriage with Taylor Armstrong. The show’s second season was scheduled to premiere on Sept. 5.

According to reports, no suicide note was found, leaving survivors to speculate as to Russell’s motives. Taylor filed for divorce from him last month, alleging verbal and physical abuse, something he seemed to confirm in an interview with People magazine. (“Did I push her? Yes, maybe things happened in the heat of the moment, but it was during a time in our lives that was not characteristic of who we were. This show has literally pushed us to the limit.”) Russell Armstrong, a venture capitalist, was also experiencing business problems, and had complained about the stress of having everything play out on TV.

Now Bravo has to deal with whether to relate his death in the show — RHOBH was still in production, though not shooting this week — or scrap the season premiere. That the dilemma exists at all is a kind of comment on the Real Housewives franchise in general. On the one hand, it could seem exploitative to air a season after the death — which will, of course, only raise interest in the show. On the other hand, it doesn’t speak well of a reality show that the thing that could push it off the air is, well, reality.

If RHOBH were what it ostensibly is, an honest show about a slice of upscale society and the characters’ families, then it should be trusted to straightforwardly deal with a death in the family, which after all is the one certain thing in life. But the Real Housewives shows, whatever their charms, are really entertainment: engineered soaps for gawking at their stars’ conspicuous consumption. RHOBH could work Russell’s death into the season, but it would have to become a much different kind of show. And of course, to give a really honest accounting, it would have to look at the effect of making the show on its characters’ lives. (Not to mention the fact that for Taylor, and every other Real Housewife, the show is literally a job, and thus a source of income.)

That’s not to say that RHOBH made Russell Armstrong kill himself. There were a lot of stressors in his life besides the show, and as with many reality-show-related controversies, there is a chicken-and-egg factor: Do the shows make their subjects volatile or do they attract volatile subjects? Also, show-related pressures and non-show-related pressures have a way of reinforcing each other; associates of Armstrong’s interviewed after his death have said that his financial problems may have stemmed partly from maintaining a Real Housewives lifestyle — a circumstance, to be certain, not limited to people on reality shows.

What is fair to say is that Russell did not come off well in the first season. He didn’t have nearly as much screen time as Taylor, but onscreen and in others’ talk about him, he came across as brusque and pushy, a guy whom Taylor was first attracted to as a “man’s man” but who was domineering and insensitive in their relationship. “Sometimes she just doesn’t want to fight with him,” one of Taylor’s friends says, “and she’ll just do something” that she doesn’t want to do. (Again, to be fair, much of what we “learned” about Russell was from his characterization by others.)

In the first episode of Season 2, sent to critics, Russell doesn’t turn up, but we see that all is not great in his and Taylor’s marriage. Yet Taylor is still trying to work things out; they’ve gone into therapy, and in Taylor’s first scene, she goes shopping for lingerie to spice things up at home. She’s trying, she says, to “put in the effort” and “increase the intimacy.” Previews for coming episodes show her crying about her marriage problems.

The show was already going to have to deal with the breakup of Taylor and Russell’s marriage. (This is hardly, by the way, the first Real Housewives marriage to end.) Bravo clearly wasn’t hesitant to depict that, but Russell’s death may be too much. I wish I could say that RHOBH was the kind of show I trusted to handle this story well, but I’m not sure it’s capable of dealing with the hard truths, complexities and sensitivities here. Among them: Russell and Taylor had a 5-year-old daughter, who never signed up for her parents’ choices, and who now has to deal with the loss of her father. That’s one kind of reality I’m not sure I want a Real Housewives show to give me.