Reality TV, in the Conservatory, With the Lead Pipe?

This has been another rough week for Reality TV, as a private tragedy has turned into a water cooler/shock jock/all-media gabfest mostly centered around finger-pointing.

The suicide of Russell Armstrong, a member of the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, has been made to seem like some sort of wake-up call for the genre.  Did the pressures associated with being part of the show cost a man his life, or was it the combination of lawsuits and impending divorce proceedings that drove him over the edge?  It’s “The Day that Should Change Reality TV,” according to one guy who’s also the managing editor of a website whose current big stories include such incisive content as “Celebrities Who Look Eerily Similar.”

First of all, this is a tragedy.  A man is dead. A child is now left without her father.  I was thinking this when some jokester/ghoul talk radio personality asked me this week if I thought that the show would have used the footage of the body being found.

If you’re curious about the answer to the question, it’s no.  I also believe that if you said you thought for a moment that the answer would be yes, you’re lying.

If you look back over the history of movies and television, there are hundreds of actors that have killed themselves… more than a few likely tied in the media to the pressures of fame compounded by an inability to cope with it.  This particular headline isn’t about reality television specifically, it’s about mental illness and depression being exacerbated by a situation that the participant elected to be a part of.  If you have heart trouble, don’t ride The Dragster at Cedar Point.  If you get seasick, don’t go on a boat.  If you’re going to be part of a reality series that’s part of a long-running franchise that’s had plenty of controversy, bickering and scandal… know that your experience will probably be similar.

Above all… know that Reality TV can’t make you into something you’re not.  Fame is an amplifier, that’s all.  If you go into it thinking you can self-produce yourself into the ideal version of you, stay away.


6 thoughts on “Reality TV, in the Conservatory, With the Lead Pipe?

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  1. Hey, Troy!

    You know I love you, but I have to disagree with you on several points. First, Russell wasn’t an actor, a mistake many participants and producers make when casting people into being amp’d up versions of themselves. The line is fuzzier, downright fluffy, between private and pubic life, from inside and outside the show bubble. He, like many reality stars (not actors) was not prepared for the warping and invading of his life. He was always reticent participant, and it’s the quiet ones you need to watch more carefully. I wonder how easy it would have been for him to quit after one or two episodes, with his wife shining in the spotlight and obviously pressuring him to do this for her–the consequences to their fragile marriage and young daughter’s life be damned. Russel tried to keep his needy wife happy, his life together in front of the camera she wanted in their lives, and imploded. He won’t be the last, if he was even the first, to do so.

    Second, I do think the producers would have used some of that body/death footage–maybe just a hand or a shot/sound ups of people screaming in horror, but something. And I think that could have been one of the most honest moments in reality television to date, if the producers had just let it roll and not edited anything out from that sequence. But that’s the difference between documentary television and reality television: honesty. And money. I produced a cinema-veritè story for a show on TLC years ago wherein we showed footage of a body being discovered during the course of our subject’s work day. She was an coroner’s investigator and my only regret is that we didn’t show more bodies, like the babies stacked up in slots, clothing on, inside the refrigerator at the county morgue. Or the teen who had hung himself from the rafters in the family garage earlier that morning. The higher-ups could live with the body of a jobless drunk about to be evicted from his meager home keeled over on his kitchen table, but not the others who died that day. Death outsells sex, and I don’t think the producers would have been able to resist showing just a taste for sensationalist purposes. But they really should have laid it all out there, been willing to take some sparkle out of a very glittery, unrealistic show.

    We’re not supposed to see behind the curtain, especially when it comes to a genre or television whose very name is a lie. But the wizard tycoons and other participants in reality television look a lot more like Russell Armstrong, dead or alive, than most producers want to admit: real humans asked to perform natural acts unnaturally, “as themselves.”

    1. Jenine,

      First, thank you for posting.

      Second, I respectfully disagree with a few points, most fervently with the notion that body/death footage would ever appear on a network like Bravo even if it had happened on camera. And any decision not to air that would be a matter of good taste and honoring a person’s memory rather than honesty. As I understand things, by the way, the body was not discovered on-camera, at least according to this excerpt from a Francisco Martin interview with OK! Magazine’s Nicole Eggenberger:

      “I had not heard from Russell since last Friday so I went to his place where he was staying together with Taylor,” Francisco explains. “I met her over there at the place. His roommate basically let us in and Taylor was outside waiting and we got into the house from a back window that was open because his door was locked. And we found his body there. That’s basically what happened.”

      There is a vast, Snake River Canyon sized jump between what’s acceptable in docu-soaps and what’s acceptable in TLC forensic shows. Docu-soaps cannot cross the death line in the way scripted shows do every day and that a TLC docu-series about a coroner’s investigator could and should in a respectful way: no faces, abstracted. Total honesty would seem gratuitous and would likely further distress the families of the decedents.

      As for money, television is a business. Sadly, that’s the end of that conversation and there’s nothing to be done about it except voting with our remotes and writing to the networks. Thousands of people survive their participation in the 600-ish reality shows on the air each year, and as heartbreaking as this scenario is, reality tv is only a portion of the issue, not the lone, crucifiable culprit.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Troy. The series I worked on wasn’t a forensic series; it was a biography-type series profiling professional women. I pushed hard for my subject and the death shot in that context and it gave weight to the role this woman played in the life after the life of this man, far from registering as gratuitous.

    Again, I don’t think the producers would have shown Russell’s entire body, but definitely the reactions to the discovery of his death, cameras nosing in on the tears on her face, to paraphrase E. Costello. It’s the tease of reality shows, the sizzle with no steak, and not showing or discussing something as distressful yet real as death all the way which warps the portrayal of real people for entertainment and profit. Sometimes, more often than I’m sure either of us is aware, also at a great cost to participants and our culture. Money is to be made in this business, but not by exploiting people to death.

    It’s no coincidence that, in addition to what we see onscreen, reality TV production companies are often the worst offenders of workers’ rights, too, as you know. One day, if not today, the reigns will be pulled in and producers held accountable, via lawsuits, participants’ deaths or just bad ratings and reduced ad revenue. There is good business and bad business: both generate money but one carries a much higher karmic price-tag.

  3. Thanks, Troy! Right back atcha. Are you planning to attend the meeting with P.V. this month? I’m leaning toward not going, but maybe you can persuade me ; )

  4. I think that if this tragic situation highlights anything, it’s that suicide rates are higher than anyone would like to admit, especially in men. I don’t imagine the pressure of being on tv would help someone in a fragile state (I agree it’s the quiet ones you have to watch) but to blame the show is to make light of the entire issue of mental health. Let’s hope that such a high profile instance shines a light on the problem and maybe encourages people to seek help.

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