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Leonard Pitts: A real death for reality TV

One imagines the promo will pretty much write itself. ěDon’t miss a moment of the high fashion, high drama and hijinks as ëReal Housewives of Beverly Hillsí returns for Season 2. Join the pampered princesses of the worldís most famous ZIP code as they struggle with questions all the money in the world cannot answer. Can sisters Kim and Kyle repair their broken relationship after last seasonís fight? Can Camille find happiness in her new life without Kelsey? And, what will Taylor do when she finds out her estranged husband committed suicide after seeing his private life played out as a cheesy soap opera to sell hemorrhoid medicine and feminine hygiene products to a mass audience?î
Maybe you find the foregoing an unsuitably cynical response to last weekís news that a fellow named Russell Armstrong hanged himself and that people around him blame it on the pressures of seeing his wife, reality star Taylor Russell, file for divorce as his finances crumbled (the Los Angeles Times calls him a ěstruggling entrepreneurî with a $12 million debt) and an audience looked on. But it seems to me the real cynicism is embodied in a TV showís decision to treat peopleís actual lives and misfortunes as entertainment.
ě ëThe Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,í I think, was (Russellís) downfall,î a friend named William Ratner told the Los Angeles Times. ěThe TV show put a lot of pressure on him to produce financially. Youíre on a show with a couple like the Maloofs, who are verifiable billionaires, and youíre not.î
The reference was to ěHousewifeî Adrienne Maloof, whose family owns the Sacramento Kings basketball team.
ěThe program itself,î Russellís mother, John Ann Hotchkiss, told CNN’s Headline News, ějust really brought him down.î She said her son was constantly bashed on the show and could do nothing about it because the conflict generated ratings. ěAll the network cares about are ratings. They donít care how people feel.î Nor is Russell reality TVís first meltdown. Jon and Kate Gosselin got divorced. Singer Fantasia Barrino tried to commit suicide. Danielle Staub thought about it.
ěI was very close to taking my own life ó not just on one occasion ó itís been several times,î the former cast member of ěReal Housewives of New Jerseyî recently told ěEntertainment Tonight.î ëI donít have words to describe how alone you feel when everybodyís coming at you and judging you ó and they donít even know you.î
Now thereís this. And you wonder if, even at this price, we will finally realize that other peopleís lives are not a car crash we slow down to watch on the freeway.
This brand of television is the moral equivalent of those ěbum fightî videos where homeless men are paid to scrap on camera and the video is posted online. There is something similarly predatory in searching out these troubled people, these drunks and narcissists, these self-centered, superficial plastic surgery junkies, these screechers and whiners and perpetual adolescents with daddy, esteem or anger management issues, and paying them to let us watch as they implode. There is something reprehensible in the watching, too.
ěReality,î they call it. Well, a man is dead and it looks like TV played a part.
Is that real enough?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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