The bad news just keeps coming for “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” On Monday, Taylor Armstrong’s estranged husband Russell was found dead in a friend’s apartment, an apparent suicide. Now comes word that Bravo, in light of the tragedy, may not only stop filming of season 2 (which debuts Sept. 5) but cancel the season altogether.
I can’t blame Bravo if this is ultimately their decision. If season two is left in the can, no one will be able to accuse the network of bad taste. Given that a major storyline has been built around the Armstrong’s impending divorce in the coming season, it may be difficult for the show not to cross that line without doing some major re-editing with the season debut just weeks away. I could easily see that the network may ultimately decide it’s just not worth the trouble.
Still, I hope that Bravo decides to forge ahead and put “RHoBH” on the air anyway (* see caveat below) and not just because I want to see the show.
While Armstrong may figure into season two more prominently, let’s face it — the husbands of the “Real Housewives” franchise are always secondary characters. Even if the divorce is a major part of the season, what viewers were/are likely to see is Taylor’s perspective on events as she kvetches to her friends and frenemies about the split. With her just-beginning-to-fade beauty and unnaturally pouty lips, she won us over in season one as a dedicated society wife who couldn’t get her distant, unattractive husband to love her. Russell, however, was never the one to watch, except for the times we’d stare at the screen and wonder, “Why the heck is she with that guy?” Even if the Armstrong divorce is a major part of season two, I somehow doubt Russell jumped from bit player to star.
Of course, it’s not without precedent that a reality TV show has been canceled following tragedy. “Megan Wants a Millionaire” and “I Love Money 3” were both canceled by VH1after ‘Millionaire’ contestant Ryan Jenkins (who also filmed some episodes of “I Love Money 3”) allegedly murdered his wife and later hanged himself in a Canadian hotel room. Airing a television show featuring a murderer who cut off his wife’s fingers and pulled out her teeth before stuffing her mutilated corpse into a suitcase tends to take the focus off the fluffy content of a dating or competition show (besides being pretty macabre). In Russell Armstrong’s case, his suicide is a sad ending to an already sad story, period.
While much has been made of Russell’s quotes to People magazine, in which he accused the TV cameras to pushing himself and Taylor to “extremes” (and indirectly claimed they may have led to some minor physical abuse of his wife), I don’t think “RHoBH” should feel to blame for his suicide. Armstrong was financially tapped out — and a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against him and Taylor in the weeks before his death certainly didn’t help. Though I’m sure it didn’t help his frame of mind know that his wife’s accusations of physical abuse were public knowledge, it seemed that being on the show, while surely magnifying some of the couples’ problems, had benefits, too. Taylor seemed to thrive on the glamour and excitement of being a “Real” housewife, and I’m sure that Bravo paycheck, though not as substantial as the couple’s spending, must have helped along the way as well.
But the real reason to air “RHoBH” is a simple one. As tragic as Russell Armstrong’s death may be, his split with Taylor wasn’t just soap opera histrionics. In the divorce papers, Taylor accuses him of physical abuse, and given Armstrong’s record, it seems plausible. His first wife filed multiple restraining orders against him and in 1997 he was arrested for getting into a physical altercation with her. He was also accused of slapping, spanking and twisting the ears of his then-six-year-old son, Aiden. Although there are plenty of fictional rich wife/abusive husband stories on Lifetime and elsewhere, a real story of one woman’s decision to leave an allegedly abusive marriage has real resonance. There’s a persistent belief that physical abuse is a problem born of poverty or low social status, and while the Armstrongs were in financial straits, on the surface they appeared to have everything. Taylor’s story could well be a wake-up call to many women who may need one.
(*) Ah, that caveat I mentioned above — I don’t think the decision on whether or not to air season two really lies with Bravo, not without the network passing it by Taylor first. Even if she was following through with the divorce, she is still a bereaved widow. If anyone is going to justifiably cry foul to the second season being shown, it’s her.