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TOPIC: Reality TV is a blood sport that must change

TOPIC: Reality TV is a blood sport that must change

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt Zoller Seitz sees the suicide of a Real Housewives husband as the first crack in the glossy veneer of a ruthless franchise.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Russell Armstrong died in an arena.

The type of so-called reality show represented by the Real Housewives franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show’s appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants — or “cast members,” as they are revealingly labeled — suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw.

It’s time to get real about reality TV. As your parents may have warned you, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. People are getting hurt.

Armstrong, the estranged husband of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, commited suicide on Monday. Friends have said the show changed him, that the pressure of having his marital strains examined on national TV and the financial stress of keeping up with much wealthier cast members all contributed to his emotional collapse.

For years now, we have pretended that these shows are harmless train-wreck fun. That can’t continue. We need to ask, What does this unnatural environment do to the psyches of people who inhabit it? And what does it do to us as we watch?

Of course, Armstrong might have killed himself whether he was on a TV show or not. Suicide is a mysterious thing. “You just never really know if a person is going to do something like that,” said Licia Ginne, a Santa Monica-based marriage and family therapist who numbers a few celebrities among her clients. “Sometimes it takes everyone by surprise, even people who thought they really knew the person.”

You can read the rest of Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece at Salon here.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image website. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in Fall 2012 by Abrams Books.

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