'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills': When agony overtakes ecstasy

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Yesterday was a rough day for the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Swift on the heels of reports that cast member Kim Richards had checked herself in to rehab, Bravo aired a gut punch of an episode that showed yet another emotional breakdown from Taylor Armstrong, who admitted on last night’s Watch What Happens Live that her life was “unraveling.” It’s not the first time issues of abuse, be they substance or physical, have been addressed any number of reality shows from The Anna Nicole Show to Jersey Shore, but what is it about this season of Beverly Hills that is so much more uncomfortable than those other shows?

There’s a certain amount of producer influence taken for granted in reality television. You know behind-the-scenes types from Jersey Shore are plying the kids with alcohol, removing external stimuli, and basically doing anything possible to ratchet up drama between the characters. On Housewives, you similarly know that Brandi Glanville’s alcohol-fueled beach party was organized so the producers could catch the ladies together and maximize on the drama. These are things to which we are accustomed.

Yet when the same problems articulate themselves on Jersey Shore versus Real Housewives, why does Snooki’s drunken crying jag seem so much less dire than Taylor’s? When Sammi’s possessions are getting destroyed (on camera, mind you) by her blatantly abusive boyfriend Ronnie, why don’t we feel as shocked as when Camille merely repeated Taylor’s claim that husband Russell broke her jaw?

Maybe it’s because the producers are so blatantly involved in something like Jersey Shore or The Anna Nicole Show that we have less fear for those characters. If ever a fight breaks out, bouncers appear like magic to save The Situation from his roommate Ronnie (or, as it turned out, the wall). You know that Ronnie can’t go too far with Sammi precisely because his destructive bender is being caught on camera. And you know Snooki isn’t going to get wasted and die alone in a ditch.

On the other hand, it seems that most of the truly horrifying things captured on Beverly Hills happen off-screen and the producers are shuffling to work around them. They are, in effect, colluding with the stars to keep them functional against the ugliness in their lives. You could argue that this sort of work-around is much worse than Jersey producers’ influence because, by ignoring, enabling, and covering up actual drama in favor of manufactured fights over Planet Hollywood versus The Palms, Housewives producers may be perpetuating the problems that plague their most troubled cast members.

Could our discomfort also come from knowing the relative ages of the Shore kids versus the Housewives? Still only 24 years old, Snooki could be justified as a dumb kid who will grow out of her hard-partying phase, and Sammi, also 24, still has time to break up with Ronnie and move on to a healthier relationship. In a word, they still have hope. With the Housewives, the problems seem to be a cycle of abuse that they have found themselves inextricably trapped in. Kim, for example, checked into rehab once already (staying for only a week) after her sister Kyle called her an alcoholic in last season’s finale. Likewise, Taylor has been open about the fact that she’s been in multiple abusive relationships since being exposed to violence in her own childhood home. With the Housewives, the horrors of reality that have bled into the show seem an end point rather than a stopover. They are simply fully grown, apparently functional people who are out of control and doing their best to hide it.

All of which leads to the fact that this season of Beverly Hills has been tainted by real world consequences. The “real” reality has overtaken the aspirational reality we expect from these shows. First, the suicide of Russell Armstrong, now Kim’s second stint in rehab. While eventually Snooki will (hopefully) look back and laugh about being arrested, no amount of time will ease the pain of brittle Kim’s lifelong struggle with substance abuse or relieve the agonizing gravity of Russell Armstrong’s suicide. Put it this way: Imagine how much more lurid The Anna Nicole Show would have seemed if Smith had died shortly after filming and E! decided to air the episodes anyway.

Ultimately, there’s also pall of loneliness that plagues this season of Beverly Hills. Even amid the fireworks at Brandi’s beach party or the histrionics of the tea party, Taylor has been desolately alone in her struggles. Likewise, one of the most haunting scenes of the episode had nothing to do with the beach party blow-out. Instead, it was a much quieter scene (pictured above) showing Kim doing laundry by herself. Though it could easily have been glorified B-roll, it stood out for its stark moment of isolation and sadness. For show that’s ostensibly about an empowered group of women who have it together, this season it seems like many of the Housewives are actually going it alone.

What do you think, PopWatchers? What is it about this season of Real Housewives that’s so unsettling?

Read more:
EW Recaps: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Taylor Armstrong: ‘I was a trainwreck’ this season on ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’
‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’: Was the tea party scene the most uncomfortable of the season?

‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Kim Richards enters rehab

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