Reality TV and Risk Calculus

No matter how silly you think the Real Housewives franchise is, this is incredibly sad: Russell Armstrong, the soon-to-be-ex-husband of one of the Beverly Hills housewives, has apparently committed suicide. The Beverly Hills installment of the show was notable for both its financial excesses and its rawness: Taylor Armstrong spent $60,000 on a birthday party for her daughter with Russell, while two of the sisters on the show fought bitterly about one of their struggles with alcoholism. The Armstrongs’ were the unlucky couple who, according to the format of the show, saw their marriage dissolve during filming. Taylor accused Russell of spousal abuse in her petition for divorce.

Being reality-television famous can be modestly lucrative, but even if you think you might end up a mini-mogul like Bethenny Frankel, the price you can pay seem awfully high. The contract you have to sign if you’re going to appear on The Real World says you have to absolve MTV of responsibility if you’re raped or sexually assaulted. If your wife decides she wants to humiliate you on national television for the sake of juicing her nascent Q score, you can’t really prevent her from doing it once you’ve stepped over the line and agreed to be on the show. The incentives here are for perpetual disaster: there’s no reward for self-protection here. People have the right to do whatever they like with their lives, of course, but we’re an awfully risk-averse country except when it comes to fame. Then, we’re willing to stake everything in pursuit of it.