‘Real Housewives’ in Dark Places: When Reality TV Covers Serious Issues

When we were growing there were two sayings that explain the success of reality TV. The first was “the truth is stranger than fiction” and the second is “you can’t make this stuff up.” When my favorite episodic dramas returned this season I had an unexpected reaction. My brain had to adjust to the fictional drama and subtle made up dilemmas of my favorite show, “Grey’s Anatomy.” I was used to something more brazen.

I only allow myself 10 to 12 hours of TV a week. That may sound like a lot but according to The New York Times the average American watches 34 hours of TV a week. Yikes. That’s a second job.

So how do I spend my TV time? My 10 hours per week is generally budgeted between “The View,” “Nightline” and my reality sister wives. “The Real Housewives of Anywhere” tend to get my TV attention. Then I also watch VH1’s “Mob Wives” like it’s my religion and manage to catch “Love and Hip Hop” here and there. At some point I plan to get into WE-TV’s “The Braxtons” on a marathon. I would watch “True Blood” but I only have basic cable. I will also admit to partially filling my spiritual needs with Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN and my TV pastor Joel Osteen, which all came together this week like a supernova. Oy vey.

This season “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” are tackling extremely difficult subject matter. Divorces, rivalries and friendships breaking up have been fodder since the Bravo franchise first introduced “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” By the time “The Real Housewives of New York,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” came along, wig pulling, table flipping and dinner parties from hell had become standard. The franchise had some misses along the way with failed “Housewives” from DC and Miami.

So where are we now? In the “RHOBH” 2010 off-season, a cast member’s husband hanged himself. When Russell Armstrong, who was often seen awkwardly interacting with his wife Taylor committed suicide there was a moment of, what will they do now? Bravo simply re-edited and the show proceeded on schedule. Now we’re watching a dead man being accused of beating his wife as evening entertainment. The whole thing is gut wrenching but I, like so many other millions of viewers, can’t look away.

In addition to Taylor’s story line of domestic violence, imminent spousal suicide and divorce, there is Kim Richards. We know that the former child star just came out of rehab. Presumably we’re watching how she got there as we watch her miss familial obligations with her sister Kyle Richards and frustrate many of her cast members. Kim is literally a walking breakdown complete with Ken, an odd and scary love interest.

You know when you’re watching a scary movie and you’re yelling, “no, don’t go in there?” Well, this show is that moment on steroids.

While my mom might have watched “Dynasty” with my dad in the next room and my aunt on the phone we now have a completely different layer of interactivity. My mother talks about being at work with everyone discussing around the proverbial water cooler, “Who shot JR?” Never mind waiting until the next day to talk about whether Russell might beat Taylor up when they into the house. I am watching TV, live tweeting the show, reading the tweets of strangers also watching on the #RHOBH hashtag and chatting about it simultaneously on Get Glue. Most of my friends might replace or add Google + or facebook to that hyper equation. It’s meta, meta, meta TV.

When Camille Grammer shouted at Taylor about her alleged abuse situation, “we don’t see any bruises on you” it was like a moment from an “After School Special” gone wrong. My feminist education taught me that you never blame the victim. The reason child abuse, spousal abuse and other victims don’t come forward is that they are afraid of not being believed. If heavy weight champion Mike Tyson was able to beat petite actress Robin Givens without bruises, what about an average sized man and woman?

When Taylor appeared on Andy Cohen’s “Watch What Happens Live” to discuss her life in the aftermath and plug her tell-all book, it became a teachable moment for America. Taylor like many reality characters, is one of those annoying people that you love to hate, like Camille Grammer last season. The trouble is when we confuse not liking someone with not believing them.

Perhaps that is the way that we can redeem ourselves as viewers of train wreck television as we become increasingly numb to the problems of others. If we are willing to consume endless hours of “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” and all of the satellite Kardashian series that lead up to and follow that event, then perhaps somewhere we are learning lessons about shallow love and bad choices that we can apply to our own lives. One can only hope.

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