As Real as It Gets: Reality TV’s Pounding of Flesh

Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:55pm EDT

When I heard that Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Taylor Armstrong, committed suicide, the first thing that came into my head was “the show killed him.”

This is not being melodramatic; it’s having watched this genre for years. I'm not surprised that when people make deals with the devil, he eventually comes collecting.

Also read: Russell Armstrong, 'Real Housewives' Husband, Dead of Apparent Suicide

This is not an indictment of reality TV.

I’ve been a huge, unabashed fan since its sleazy conception ("The Real World," "Temptation Island," "Joe Millionaire," "Extreme Makeover"), through its wild puberty ("The Osbournes," "America’s Next Top Model," "Rock of Love") and now, as it settles into somewhat more dignified/slightly less tawdry maturity ("Celebrity Apprentice," "Project Runway," "The Real Housewives").

In general, I have drawn the line at shows that involve eating strange things ("Fear Factor"), highlight unusual families ("20 Kids," "Multiples," "Little People"), people locked in a house ("Big Brother") or involved in jobs that seem mundane but are surprisingly dangerous ("Ice Road Truckers," "Deadliest Catch").

I don’t see it as a contradiction that I can be wildly enthusiastic about "Breaking Bad" and "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" simultaneously, since both depict ordinary people behaving very badly.

The news of Armstrong’s death comes two weeks before the show’s season two premiere, with one of the major “plotlines” being Taylor’s attempt to work on her marriage with Russell.

Also read: Lawyer: Russell Armstrong Spent Savings to Make Wife Famous on 'Housewives'

During the first season, we were told repeatedly that Russell didn’t want to be on the show and felt that it was changing his wife and their marriage -- yet, they are back for a second tour of duty. In increasingly difficult financial straits, it was the show and its opportunities that had become both camouflage and a source of income.

It’s no longer a surprise that the stories of reality show participants involve some form of misfortune. Whether it’s divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure or lost relationships, there is a known price to being a part of a reality show.

Very few people could bear up under the scrutiny that comes with cameras following you for months while the internet does a intrusive pat down into your background. It’s also not a surprise that, like in politics, it’s very often the same people who are attracted to the field who are the worst candidates for it. There are the success stories -- marriages, careers launched -- but they seem to represent the very lucky minority.

Also read: The 'Real Housewives' Legacy of Marital Destruction and Financial Ruin

We know how most of these stories begin and also how they end. There’s the initial high of being known, the inevitable media barrage, red carpets, planted stories and staged photo ops, the inflated lifestyle you can’t afford, the launch of a fashion/makeup/home furnishings line or music career that goes nowhere, and then there’s the moment when the public loses interest and moves on to the next entertaining disaster.

In fact, there is such a large pool of reality TV graduates, that there are shows that select just from this sub-group -- who are known only for their brief Roman candle of a TV career.

What amazes me is that even now, when we can longer hide behind the naiveté of not knowing quite how this newfangled machine works, there is still a seemingly unlimited amount of people not just willing but eager to get caught up and mangled in its gears.

When I think about the way it sounds -- a desire so strong that you’re willing give up everything in your life for it -- this seems exactly like any addiction. Wanting to be famous is nothing new but being famous for nothing is.

We’re bombarded with people who become famous for a day because of a video or tweet or news story. But instead of a two-line article buried in a regional newspaper, they’re blasted across the internet until their story overshadows wars and natural disasters.

If they feel important, imagine how the fame-hungry feel when they’re on a hit show.

No greater authorities than "The Hills’" Heidi and Spencer have recently bemoaned how their addiction to fame destroyed every aspect of their lives, yet I’m sure that if they were given a reality TV show about their rehabilitation, they wouldn’t think twice before signing.

When every "Housewives" season comes to its vicious end, there’s always a live reunion episode where the participants don their highest, sharpest heels to catch us up on their lives since the show ended.

I thought about that yesterday, because this season of "The Real Housewives" has already reached a tragic conclusion that no one saw coming -- but can’t be unexpected given the way this genre eats its own.

In a strange way, it’s the unhappy endings that make reality TV the most like real life, Except that there is always the thought that if reality TV had never been involved, this wouldn’t have been the ending at all.

Related Articles:  Lawyer: Russell Armstrong Spent Savings to Make Wife Famous on 'Housewives' The 'Real Housewives' Legacy of Marital Destruction and Financial Ruin Russell Armstrong, 'Real Housewives' Husband, Dead of Apparent Suicide