I was told there would be a suicide special.
I had my pre-red-carpet-show snacks and beverages laid out accordingly! Would it be more Barbara Walters Oscars Special, or more like those specials Linda Ellerbee used to host: Nick News: My Family Is Different?
But a little less than a week ago, the powers that be Andy Cohen laid the rumors to rest: Instead of an hour-long special somberly addressing the recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, estranged abusive husband of cast member Taylor Armstrong, Bravo would add a five-minute, recently filmed prologue that would deal with the tragedy. Let's give the benefit of the doubt and say this decision wasn't strictly based on how long it might take to do that instead of shoot a whole new hour of footage, but keep in mind that the producers have their hands full: They’ve been re-cutting all of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills episodes since the news of Armstrong’s death emerged, so as not to make the entire series look like a ghoulish, Memento-like docu-soap about what happens when you can see something dissolving horrifically and know full well how it will end. Last season, we had that in Kelsey and Camille’s inevitable divorce, and it was pretty teeth-gritting, but in a kicky, fun, Bravo summer camp, Patti Stanger–didn’t-catch–Jill Zarin–because-she-was-answering-a-phone-call kind of way! But this is different. There is a body count.
This season opened with generic, somber organ music over a shot of Kyle Richards in an appropriately dark top and jeans arriving at Adrienne Maloof’s ridiculous house, where the producers reckoned a sit-and-chat around the topic of the Big S would be an apropos gesture. And it was. It was fine. It was the least they could do. As in, the very least. But I’m not picking on the producers. I think they’re actually doing exactly the right thing, as far as I can see. I can only look side-eyed at Kim Richards, who arrived at Adrienne’s in head-to-toe pre–Labor Day white, even though it was the closest thing we will ever see resembling a funeral on this show. Oh, well. The time stamp said it was shot in late August, so good for her for carpe’ing the diem. Also, Maloof wore her new nose to the talk, and I think it was the right look for the occasion. Taylor wasn’t there, but the women did their most empathetic emoting when they spoke about how bad they felt for her.
The cast members and their husbands spoke in generalities about Russell’s suicide. The shock of it, the tragedy of the fact that he is leaving three little kids behind. How there was a financial mess, how he must have been depressed. But only Lisa Vanderpump, the Grande Dame of this series, had the balls to call out the fact that Russell, when he was alive, was a creepy jerk. And Armstrong, lest you forget, admitted to assaulting his wife. I don’t mean to recap ill of the dead, as I am not paid enough to, but amid the eulogizing and inevitable white-washing, people should remember that not all sick people are good, and not all of the deceased are necessarily worth being memorialized as righteous and pure. The concern should stop at what a mother has to tell her children when they ask why daddy is gone. This is all private stuff, and Taylor’s been laying low since the news broke, so good for her and I hope she picks up the pieces. But when Lisa Vanderpump said, in her perfect, décolletage-enhanced elocution, “I always felt a real emotional disconnect with this man. But it was also because of the impression Taylor had given. I had too much information to want to connect with him,” what she was saying in so many poshly pronounced words was that Taylor told her that Russell was abusive to her. And while that is a dark fact perhaps better suited to a hard-hitting documentary series about depression or addiction or domestic violence, it also happens to be a part of the lives of grown-ups with problems. And that’s what this series is, even though, yes, some of the problems are frivolous and overblown and Kim Richards is on it, and she has the emotional maturity of Witch Mountain times. So let’s proceed, knowing that this is a darker series than was intended, but that it is still a show about five stunningly beautiful women with faces enhanced by the knives of angels, who live in fairy tale houses manufactured by teeming hordes of America’s best illegals.
So, where is the fun? Here is the fun! Let’s catch up with the girls.
The producers caught us up in descending order of the cast members’ sadness, which means we started with the Vanderpumps, who are doing beautifully. Vanderpumpily, even. Lisa’s English Rose daughter, Pandora, is about to marry her excellent-looking beau, and Giggy is still wearing outfits that would make me want to commit suicide. (Sorry — bad taste? I just mean that if I were a male dog and a British lady dressed me up every day and carried me around like a clutch purse I would want to take my own life; there seems no way around that fact.) And Ken is still out to lunch in a very charming, Ozzy Osborne–Rod Stewart–Austin Powers, completely harmless sort of way. Life is good for Lisa Vanderpump, which is the only thing she has ever known it to be.
Kyle is moving, or has moved, and there are photos of her children everywhere around her, because she, with her virile Latin husband and her age-inappropriately long, Pantene Pro-V hair is this show’s fertility symbol. But then we check in with her broken sister Kim! Remember Kim? Shit: Take back what I said before about the show reintroducing everyone in reverse-sadness order.
We reconnect with the gravel-voiced broken bird in a dimly lit scene, during which she chats with her daughter, who collages something with Elmer’s Glue. We don’t know if it’s a sadness collage, a memory box, or a ransom note.
But we do know from their conversation that Kim’s daughter wishes she could have known Kim’s mother, who, Kim tells her, “used to read me scripts out loud,” which is like when normal people have their moms read them bedtime stories. “She was so strong,” Kim adds, and then we see a testimonial of Kyle crying about how her fight with Kim would have devastated their mom (who was strong and read scripts), and we realize that this is probably the only chance we’re going to get of reopening the shit box that ended last season. Remember Kyle's Chinatown-style “She’s my sister and my daughter!”–type revelation about Kim’s alcoholism in the limo, with all the screaming and crying, and the big-finish timing that couldn’t have been better if they’d planned it, instead of timed it or finessed it, or whatever it's called when reality-TV producers make the most of setup and circumstance? Well, after that, the sisters didn’t talk for a long time, Kim tells us. But now they’re talking, and I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that they have to tape a show together. They don’t make show business families much stronger than the Richardseses.
Then, we check in on Camille, who, post-divorce, has the run of Kelsey Manor. Like a glamorous, large-breasted Macaulay Culkin with eyes that comprise 65 percent of her body weight, Camille seems to spend her days home alone. But she seems like she’s coping nicely! Namely because — well, let's put it this way: You know the part in the South Park song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” when they chant “I've never seen a man eat so many chicken wings”? When I look at Camille this season, I sing, “I’ve never seen a girl on so many Klonopin” to that melody.
She is lucid, placid, and as stagnant as a mall fountain that nobody has the gumption to throw a wishing penny into. But I am rooting for her, and I believe the audience is as well, and not just because there is some self-deprecating underdog stuff she’s settled beautifully into. Also because she’s delivering lines to the camera about the deplorable way Kelsey Grammer left her (without notice, for a young stewardess who spells her name with an unnecessary Y) with a sad, knowing smile that befits a person with a shred of self-awareness. This is growth for Camille. “A girlfriend told me, ‘Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.’ Well let me tell you, I have not been disappointed,” she says, and half-smiles. It looks good on her. Way to go, Camille. Also, send me some of whatever you’re on.
Next come the Bickersons, Adrienne Maloof and her goofball husband Paul, who wears scrubs all the time and has a chef named Bernie who looks exactly like him.
Did Paul, a plastic surgeon, embark upon a bizarre experiment years ago in which he gradually began to turn Bernie into himself, so they could one day switch identities and Paul could live out the rest of his life as a carefree cook? We will never know. But we do know that Bernie hates Lisa Vanderpump, and even though I find the Maloof high jinks on this show sort of Lockhorns-ish and therefore tiresome (I’m a Beetle Bailey girl, through and through), I will say that I think the Bernie versus Lisa thing is funny, and I encourage more of it. Which I’m sure we’ll get, because the more frills on this season that do not directly address the husband of a cast member taking his own life, the better! Thus Spake Andy Cohenthrusta.
Finally, halfway through the episode, we greet Taylor in an upbeat shopping scene, wearing a canary-colored top that makes her look like Tweety Bird. It is a fun entrance for her, and I commend the producers and editors for choosing it.
Taylor meets up with Kyle at the shop and smiles her wide mouth with gossip-rich glee. She ran into Cedric! Remember Cedric the Entertaining? Lisa’s gay boarder who turned out to be a sociopath? Well, Taylor saw him and tells Kyle, and thank God it’s a breezy scene, because we were all holding our breath around her first appearance on film. So, it’s fine and fun; she looks thin, but nothing even close to the shocking footage of her later at the dinner party or over the course of the season as seen in the previews, which is genuinely upsetting in a way that you are negligent if you do not comment on it.
Having watched the pre-suicide edit of the premiere, I can note that the producers cut a scene in which Taylor goes to Trashy Lingerie to shop for something lacy and racy, with which she intended to spice up her marriage. And while I’m certain that the arc of her and Russell’s relationship falling apart is the anchor of Taylor’s entire story this season, I think the decision not to kick off the season with footage of her trying on teddies for the benefit of a dead man was a good and sound one. Kudos, Bravo!
Finally, we work our way up to the main event of the episode, which is a dinner party Adrienne is hosting for Camille, who, in case you don’t remember, had an outrageous cameo on the now-canceled $#*! My Dad Says TV show that we all loved and enjoyed when it was on. According to IMDb, the episode she was on was called “Who’s Your Daddy,” and she played a version of herself also named Camille, and it was terrific, and a simpler time.
Naturally this is an opportunity for a lot of whimsical this and that, including some chatter over what Paul’s chef/doppelgänger should or shouldn’t serve, and the Maloofs debut their very cute new dog named Jackpot, who is named after a gambling phrase because the Maloofs own casinos and are classy.
And all of the Housewives show up one by one, just as they did in the first, organ-music-scored scene, and then Kim Richards shows up, dressed like Temple Grandin.
They screen the historical “Who’s Your Daddy” episode of $#*! My Dad Says, and everybody has a blast. And then, at dinner, after a drawn-out Bickersons moment between Paul and Adrienne that I wish could’ve been swapped out for the cutting-room-floor footage of Taylor asking her friends if the garters she was trying on might re-ignite her late husband’s interest (in other words, for anything at all), there’s a toast to getting along, and some chitchat and glaze-over about all of the horrible things that have happened to these women over the past year. And, soon after that, Paul asks Taylor how her marriage is going.
“We’re working on things,” Taylor says with honesty and poise, and Camille reaches out to her, saying it’s admirable that she and Russell are going to therapy, as she and Kelsey never got the opportunity. Also, fuck you, Kelsey Grammer and your new show looks horrible. I know it’s implied, but I wanted to type it out anyway.
Then, Ken, who is a delight, but also doddering and, by his own admission, from another culture and a different time (Shagadelic, baby!), says that he would never go to therapy, because it would make him feel weak. Well, that’s not the right thing to say to Taylor, who is visibly a barely held together house of cards. A gazebo of cards. I am not picking on her weight when I say Taylor’s arms gave me pangs of concern that I haven't felt since I went to the gym and didn’t know whether or not to call for help for the girl wearing twelve layers on the elliptical in front of me who had forearms the same width as her upper arms and hair falling out in clumps. It is not a cosmetic judgment when I say it is hard to see a girl that thin, especially when you know she was suffering and can only be hurting even more today.
So right before we have to watch Taylor crumble after being provoked unintentionally by a clown who meant nothing by saying “I wouldn’t want my wife going to a therapist” (Yeah, baby, yeah!), the producers were kind enough to give us some comic relief in the form of Kim, who comes out on the “pro” side of whether or not a couple should go to therapy.
“You don’t just throw away a marriage.” Kim says. “I mean, if it’s therapy, if it’s going to Africa, fly to the moon! Save your marriage.” Fly to the moon, Kim.
Taylor goes to the bathroom and cries, shortly after Adrienne reveals that she and Paul are Catholic. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Ken, or Catholicism. Kyle, fertility goddess and Miss Congeniality candidate, joins Taylor in the bathroom and consoles her broken friend as best she can, considering that nobody is saying anything that isn’t reasonable. Even Taylor admits that advice from a man who insists that other dogs are jealous of Giggy because Giggy is good-looking may not be the best to take to heart.
Lisa joins them in the bathroom and says Taylor is manipulative because (1) We are desperate for a conflict and (2) Apparently, the Maloofs (Malooves?) only have one guest bathroom? Don’t make me laugh. I mean, make me laugh, but only if you’re going to show me Kim in that Temple Grandin outfit again, talking about exactly how she would fly to the moon on the back of Pete’s Dragon.
And then we’re back at the dinner party, and everybody’s repeating themselves and lapsing into the semantics of whether the word offended is harsh or not (it’s not), and the room elephant, if it had a name would be “EVERYBODY BE NICE TO TAYLOR BECAUSE SHE IS SICK FROM STRESS AND SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN WITH HER HUSBAND.”
“I’m an old Englishman and maybe I shouldn’t have said anything,” Ken admits, in the most crystalline statement of the entire episode. Giggy drinks from a goblet before Lisa and Ken excuse themselves to go across the street and, unbeknownst to anyone, resign themselves to the fact that they have been retroactively scripted into being the opposing team to a crumbling woman and her deceased husband. It’s tricky, because Lisa is so cogent and enduring. Kyle thinks she’s the Greek Chorus of this show, but women watch to see what Lisa says, because Lisa is usually right. And the accent doesn’t hurt, either. So it will be a feat to see how the producers balance Lisa’s affability with the events of Taylor’s life. I’m sure, based on the sizzle reel, it will be a bread- and circus-strewn affair with minimal shock value. It’s a balancing act.
Before the season aired, I told critics of the show — the ones who were shocked that Bravo would ever go forward airing a season of TV that was filmed before somebody actually died — that it would have been a cop-out to bury the whole show. Not because of the “one measly suicide” argument that altruists and fans of subtlety espouse, but because RHOBH is a great show with layers, and I’m not just talking about how Kyle dresses, though that woman loves a wrap. “What if they’d never released Crumb just because of his brother Charles’s suicide?” I’d shriek to friends, who were nice enough not to leave the diner at the time.
While this show is not as dark as that documentary, I think it can still be said that this season of RHOBH can be both entertaining and educative without being entirely pedantic. And the added prelude, in addition to the suicide PSA that Bravo tacked onto the end of the episode, narrated by the same Bravo announcer who says “Coming up, on Top Chef Just Desserts!”), is one way of saying, “We know this shit is a notch more serious than Millionaire Matchmaker.” I’d also ask that Bravo consider alluding not just opaquely to Russell’s mental illness, but also consider addressing why it is that Taylor looks so thin and ravaged. What it is that abuse actually does to the women who suffer living with men who are cruel. The subtext of this season is not just that a sick man took his life. It is that his wife suffered. And if we are going to spend the next few months with her, we owe it to her — and not just to her ex’s memory — to know how and why.