Update: Bravo will re-edit The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in light of Russell Armstrong's suicide, says the Hollywood Reporter.
Update: Bravo announces it will postpone the premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills by " at least one week," reports RadarOnline.
Local venture capitalist Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of Bravo TV star Taylor Armstrong of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, was found dead Monday, having hanged himself in the Mulholland Drive home of a friend. Immediately several members of the Bravo family made statements of support to Taylor and her young daughter, Kennedy, who is 5 years old. Within minutes of the news breaking, Bravo head honcho and main face Andy Cohen tweeted, "I am so very sad about today's news. My prayers and thoughts are with Taylor Armstrong and her family."
It took less than 24 hours, though, before people started looking for someone to blame.
Russell's former wife, Barbara Frederickson, broke the ice by blaming Taylor outright. "She's not who she says she is and I told him to please be careful with this woman... I warned him! She's bad news and she drove him into this," she told Radar Online.
But the finger seems to be pointing more directly at Bravo, and at reality TV in general. The first season of the Housewives documented Russell and Taylor's marital issues, and the second season was set to delve further into the dissolution of their marriage. Now, many are wondering if these conflict-based shows can become too heavy a burden on some of its stars, and if that's what ultimately caused Russell's to take his own life.
In a sense, Bravo is being forced to directly address that question, since Season 2 is set to begin airing in less than three weeks. The network has been mum, simply stating they've not yet made a decision about whether they'll postpone the premiere, edit certain footage, or do something else all together.
In theory, they could do nothing. What's interesting is that while his marriage woes were on the forefront, Russell's financial and legal struggles were largely unknown until after his death. Much of it has never been addressed on the show. As E! Online reported, since 1995, Russell has been charged with felony tax evasion, misdemeanor spousal battery and battery, has been accused of abusing both his wives and his children (he has three, each from a different partner) and has filed for bankruptcy. He's also been in jail, done community service, been through anger management therapy and attended AA meetings. Suddenly his problems seem much bigger than what the cameras happened to have caught.
For that reason, we imagine there may be some temptation on Bravo's part to leave the show as is and keep it on schedule, and perhaps even go further to incorporate Russell's death into the storyline. Doing so would send the message that reality TV is just that - real, for better or for worse.
But that doesn't seem very likely. A certain obligation to be sensitive seems necessary. For that reason, Bravo could choose to simply postpone the premiere, which would distance them from the raw emotion of the suicide but still allow them to tell their story as planned.
Still, the sudden death has created a dark cloud over the show, making the typically lighthearted hour suddenly all too grim. Images of a crying Taylor or a vulnerable Russell will be too much for the audience to bear, which may cause Bravo to decide to edit Russell and Taylor out of Season 2. That would remove the melancholy for the viewers, but could seem a quiet admission that they should have been more careful with the pain and heartbreak they were documenting.
In a sense, the mood after Russell's suicide is akin to that after the death of Princess Diana, who was killed when her car crashed while being chased by paparazzi. For a moment in time, we were shown the repercussions of what Madonna called our "insatiable need to run after gossip, scandal and lies and rumors." The public was forced to ponder the uncomfortable idea that her death wasn't just the photographer's fault, but ours as well.
Which is why the way in which Bravo handles this is so significant. They've built a Real Housewives empire, but what do they do when it gets too real?
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And will the reality TV industry as a whole have to reevaluate what it is they're airing? Perhaps rethink who they cast, or look more closely at their mental health histories, or insert a Dr. Drew-like mediator into the reunion specials.
Or maybe Russell is simply an outlier. And should an exception to the rule, devastating as it may be, change anything?
It's a valid question, and one that, frankly, only Bravo can answer.