There’s always been something a little depressing, and a little fascinating, about Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. The recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, fleeting cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (and husband to full-fledged cast member Taylor Armstrong), got me thinking about why I’ve been watching the series for so long…and why I haven’t been able to fully turn away.
On some level I think it’s the Gatsby-esque quality of the show that’s kept me tuning in. Sure it’s crass, but the “real housewives” are strivers, just like Gatsby. While none of the Housewives are in search of something pure, like love—even the single ones admit the most important thing in a man is the size of his bank account—they are all searching. The Housewives feel like bastardized versions of Jimmy Gatz living the lifestyle of Jay Gatsby. (Gatsby, after all, did make the money he spent, even if he made it in an unsavory way.) This has been the brilliance of the Real Housewives and, while it didn’t take Russell Armstrong’s suicide to point it out, the fact that he hanged himself in a rental apartment after moving out of his McMansion in the midst of a dissolving marriage and a mounting pile of debt, certainly does highlight it.
I’ve watched more episodes of the Real Housewives than I care to admit, on and off, since the series launched in Orange County and began spinning off across the country–New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, DC. As the seasons wore on, and the “characters” became more shrill and despicable, the real joy of the show was watching these women—most of whom had married into new money—deal with the elephant in the room: they were going broke while they were getting paid to look rich. The irony! The hilarity! The anguish! It was a brilliant and lucky moment for Bravo, which had unknowingly tapped into the zeitgeist: it had a suite of reality shows about Americans who’d been living on easy credit and trumped-up housing values just as the bill was coming due.
While Armstrong might be the most Gatsby-esque of the bunch—he supposedly got into financial straits trying to support the increasingly expensive lifestyle of the woman he loved—his tale is, by no means, unique among the Housewives. In 2009 Jezebel even put together a “bankruptcy index” charting the money woes dogging cast members—back then there were ten people on the list—and it included Armstrong and New Jersey Housewife Teresa Giudice (whose bankruptcy filing has been the most public of any Housewife).
Ironically, but certainly not surprisingly, none of the books from the Real Housewives have been about the specter of financial ruin. The books have, for the most part, been insipid advice guides from nominally famous people no one would ever want to take advice from. New York Housewife Alex McCord, whose often unruly children drew ire from other cast mates, co-wrote a parenting guide with her husband. Crazed, and visibly unstable, New Jersey Housewife Danielle Staub wrote a memoir. Entitled, and often cruel, New York Housewife “Countess” Luann DeLesseps wrote a manners guide. Jill Zarin, also on the New York City cast—New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, in re-capping the show, invented a list it called ‘Reasons Why Jill Zarin Is a Disgusting Person’—wrote an advice guide with her mother and sister. (The most successful Housewife-turned-author is Bethenny Frankel. Frankel said she started on the New York City edition with only a few grand in her bank account and now, after branding her diet cocktail, The Skinny Girl Margarita, has gone on to release some bestselling diet books.)
I don’t think any of the Housewives should have written books about the real estate bubble or money mismanagement. Though that might have been interesting, I think publishers are right–no one wants to read about that, either. But it would be interesting if someone would talk about what happened to Russell Armstrong as it relates to the dangers of reality TV and, as luck would have it, the guy behind the scenes of the Housewives, the guy who’s arguably benefited the most from the success of the franchise, Bravo executive Andy Cohen, just sold his memoir. (Coincidentally Cohen got a much larger advance than any Housewife to date; Holt is rumored to have laid out seven figures for the book.)
Assigning any blame for what happened to Armstrong is a dicey business and nothing I would want any part in—his mother has already told the press she thinks Bravo is partially responsible for what happened to her son—but I do think discussing his fate, and how it’s the saddest possible outcome of a show that lets its viewers delight in the downfalls of its cast members, is something I’d love to hear Cohen discuss. After the flurry of books from Real Housewives that have nothing to do with their reality, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the guy behind the curtain talk about something real in his book?