A few seasons ago, "Real Housewives of New York City" cast member Kelly Bensimon appeared to have a mental breakdown on television. Irrational and not making much sense, Kelly's erratic behavior was documented by a camera crew, frame by frame.
Now, judging by the teaser for the upcoming Sept.19 episode of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," soon-to-be-widowed Taylor Armstrong seems headed down the same road.
"She's sitting a suitcase," says a clearly distraught Kim, as the camera cuts to Taylor in the seconds-long clip, huddled in a closet and pouting in disturbingly childlike way. Taylor then talks about being ready to go home in a little-girl voice.
"I feel like I'm breaking," Taylor later says to Adrienne in the clip.
She nods vigorously. "You are. You're having a mental breakdown." As short as the snippet is, the fear in Adrienne's eyes is real.
"RHBH" was fantastic when it was peeking in closets larger than many homes and getting an idea of what it might be like to casually live with having all meals prepared by a personal chef. But even before the alleged suicide of Russell Armstrong, when the cast shot the footage for this season, someone flipped it, sent it down the wrong genre corridor. Suddenly what we're seeing looks more from the mind of Edward Albee than from the Bravo TV network.
Maybe it is because, like an Albee play, we have the heaviness of an outside event infusing every moment, each nuance. Maybe the season feels so dark because we are watching a countdown of sorts, we know that when Taylor talks about her marriage to Russell with Kyle in a pool, she is talking about a marriage that will end in a way the two women do not seem to contemplate.
Even the sniping among the cast members has lost the sense of rich-people-problems fun. Instead, biting comments cross a line into position dominance, a place after social climbing where the slightest mistake in choice of jewelry or clothing or words can send you tumbling back in the imaginary social standings. Maybe that hasn't changed, maybe that's a more realistic portrayal of the super-high-end lifestyle and the women have just relaxed enough to bare their teeth for the camera.
Taylor included. At one point, Taylor mocks Lisa, and while acting as though it was unintentional, her confessional makes it clear that it was anything but: she gives a dead, menacing look to the camera and snarks at her own wit.
As I said before, Russell's death catapulted "RHBH" into some bizarre new reality TV netherworld, a twisted place never meant to exist. Adrienne and her husband's arguing turns from playful in the first season to dark and foreboding in this one; when she looks at Paul, there are times you can see the ghost of Elizabeth Taylor peeping through the layers, her raw portrayal of Martha from the film adaptation of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" seeping around Adrienne's edges, set against her husband Paul's emotionally void George.
The tragedy of an Albee play is bearable because you know that the players are players, and the people are fictional. Though the lives of many dissolve very much in the way he depicts, you do not watch those real people dissolve, and instead can maintain a distance while absorbing a universal truth.
"RHBH" doesn't allow us a distance anymore. The gloss of money no long hides the irregularities in the surface below, and unlike a play, we are watching lives, not imagination.
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