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Bravo goes too far with Taylor’s breakdown on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills began with a disturbingly unbalanced premiere episode that was somber for a few seconds while acknowledging Russell Armstrong’s suicide, and then went on to its normal stupidity. The show still has the same problem in tone, but it’s gotten much uglier, as Taylor Armstrong’s breakdown on last night’s episode proved.

At the time, I said it’d be a mistake to edit Russell out of the show. But what I didn’t know then–and what Bravo did, of course–is that Taylor was abused by Russell, and that the abuse was the real plotline of this season that Bravo would squeeze until every last drop of drama came out of it.

I applaud reality television for tackling important, powerful subjects, and domestic violence isn’t something that should be hidden away or ignored, especially on nonfiction television that’s about real people’s real lives. But the way Bravo and the producers of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Evolution Media, have been treating Taylor’s abuse has been disgraceful.

As a fan of The Real Housewives of New York, I think the series works because it is soapy, stupid fun that’s real within heavily set-up contexts created by producers. But it fails every time the series goes from stupid fights between rich women about nothing at all into something with real consequence.

Last night’s episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills did just that. After an episode of the normal nonsense, such as injections and plastic surgery, the women went to one of those artificially constructed parties where they know their job is to create drama. But the transition from drunkenly attempting to belly dance to the women ganging up on Taylor and insisting she make up with Camille Grammer took the series into a dark place.

It had not earned the right to go there. First, we saw Taylor telling another woman that Camille “brought up the other stuff, which was not okay with me.” Cue the flashback to Camille confronting Taylor by saying, “we don’t say that he broke your jaw, or that he beat you up and he hit you. We don’t say that. But now we said that.”

At the party, Taylor cried, “That puts my daughter in danger, and I can’t get past that.” The problem here is that she’s largely talking about the Bravo reality show, the camera crew that is recording and will expose the abuse to the world and to, of course, her husband, and she’s obviously terrified of that possibility. But the show skirts around that and leaves out its own culpability.

I’m not an expert in treating those who suffer from domestic violence, but I’m guessing the best way to help them is not to drunkenly confront a victim at a party being filmed for a cable television show and insisting she confront the person who exposed her darkest secret to the world. Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

As it unfolded, Taylor first pretended to throw herself over the railing and kill herself, and then had a full-throttle, uncomfortable breakdown. Thankfully, the editors kept up the jaunty, fun music as background, because that’s what will make it seem fun to an audience of voyeurs who want to pretend that they’re not part of what is happening. I can see why it makes sense to include that scene.

But who thought it was at all appropriate to use that music? Does anyone involved in the production think critically about what they’re sending out into the world? The choices that they make influence how the audience receives the content, and either they’re trying to lighten up the darkness or they just don’t care.

After the episode, Taylor showed up live on Andy Cohen’s soon-to-be-nightly talk show, and Andy proceeded to ask her serious questions about her “state of mind” at the party, and she confessed “I was a little drunk, absolutely, and a little crazy.” She said “my biggest fears were unraveling” and “I was truly terrified,” admitting that “I was living in a dangerous situation and having that exposed to the viewers and the nation was starting to really unravel for me.”

She said she told Camille about the abuse privately and didn’t know she’d confess it in front of the cameras, and Andy suggested that Camille was trying to help her, which Taylor agreed with, “I completely understand and I appreciate their support,” she said, but also said she “felt completely betrayed” and “couldn’t get past it.”

Taylor also said, “It’s been horrifying to watch. I really see a woman who was out of control, a woman who was terrified, somebody who was clearly about to go off the deep end. And I’m just thankful to be here with my daughter and I’m getting healthier every day, and I’m able to be with you instead of in a more dire circumstance.” When the show came back from the break, there was a montage about someone’s breasts, because we wouldn’t want to drag the audience down by keeping things serious for more than five minutes.

Before that, however, Andy mentioned her forthcoming book, Hiding from Reality: My Story of Love, Loss, and Finding the Courage Within, and Taylor said “I’m hoping that for someone, this might break the cycle” and “unless this becomes a conversaiton, we’re never going to change it.”

That’s a noble goal, and I hope that’s successful. It’s also very nice of her not to call Bravo out on its responsibility for some of the pain and suffering she went through, which it’s now profiting on by broadcasting it and using it as fodder for its other properties. There are a lot of complicated things going on here, and of course the abuse is not Bravo’s fault. But how this season is unfolding makes it clear that the reality show played a central role in the relationship that came apart during production and ended with Russell’s death.

Worse is that Camille’s confession to the cameras and Taylor’s fear that would cause her harm were caused by a series that now plays those moments like they have the same weight and consequence as someone flipping out about having to go to Quogue for a party. But hey, it gets viewers, and who cares about anything more than that?

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