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.