Emily Yoshida argues that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills became a very compelling and powerful show as it faced up to Russell Armstrong’s death:
Genre, network, editing, intention, manipulation, and undeniable exploitation notwithstanding, season two of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills was one of the most important, morally complex, thought-provoking bodies of work I’ve ever seen on television, and even if I’m not necessarily “glad” it exists, I think it had to.
She also links to some other articles making the same argument, including this piece by Kate Aurthur. Both pieces inspire a lot of arguments in comments about whether there is any value in such an exploitative piece of work – in other words, if the show leaves you riveted, or makes you re-examine our relationship to TV and celebrity culture, does that mean it’s actually doing good work?
Without having watched much of the second season, I can’t personally answer that, though I do think that it’s part of the strange power of television that insight can be found in the strangest places. Also, since we know reality TV is very carefully assembled and produced to create the effects the producers want to get, it’s not far-fetched to say that it can be as compelling as a scripted show. Or a serious documentary. But the insight into television or life would have to be incredibly compelling to justify the exploitation. Otherwise it could be just the same old story of presenting horrible things and all but ordering us to feel bad about them.