The scariest, most disgusting show on television isn’t American Horror Story. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Bravo’s unscripted series offers that horror movie gimmick of showing you unlikable people doing ill-advised things that you can’t prevent no matter how loudly you yell or curse at the screen. But because the characters are — in the physical sense, at least — “real,” and the world-shattering plot twist at the core of this season was telegraphed to the audience long in advance, what might otherwise seem a guilty pleasure seems instead a travesty, as depraved a spectacle as anything that has ever appeared on American screens.
We all knew before this new batch of episodes started that Real Housewives husband Russell Armstrong killed himself in August 2011. We knew that some of his family members blamed the unrelenting public scrutiny built into the show’s production for hastening his death, and that the tension with his wife, Taylor, was more than a tabloid spat between shallow rich folk — that it was, in fact, symptomatic of something far darker than the typical unscripted cable show could handle. But Real Housewives either ineptly failed to integrate our awareness of the tragedy into the plot in any meaningful way, or else decided to plug its ears and tiptoe through the hand-woven silk origami tulips. Is this approach evidence of a conscious creative choice — the calm before the storm? If this franchise weren’t so committed to manufactured melodrama and toxic materialism, I’d offer a very tentative “yes,” but I suspect it’s more likely the case of the show not having the slightest clue of what to do with such explosive material — material that it frankly never should have tried to deal with on-screen, because it is morally, intellectually and creatively unequipped to get anywhere near it without making it dishonest and trite. We’re not talking about Deadliest Catch here, or even Survivor or freaking Celebrity Rehab. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
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Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.