You may have read about the recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, the husband of one of Bravo TV’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The NY Times published a moving, if rather tragic article about the whole affair this past Sunday, “A Jenny Jones Moment for Reality TV?”. There are a couple of relevant aspects of the story, and I’m not talking, strictly speaking, about what accounts for the success of the explosively salacious franchise – that’s pretty obvious. What’s more interesting is how the Real Housewives illustrate the precarious and often ironic relationship between commerce, denial and reality. That is, what we have here is the “reality” of massive denial (the Housewives), being marshaled in the service of mass denial (you and me, who are so unlike them), being marshaled in the service of dollar dollar bills, rinse wash repeat, until Reality stops everything in its tracks, with death in this case taking on its biblical weight, i.e. as the embodiment of Judgment. In fact, reading the article, you’ll be struck by how much “conviction of sin” the sad event has produced – and contrition in reality TV producers is obviously no small feat.

Yes, the genre is an easy target, and certainly a lot of reality TV is undeniably fun and harmless. But that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable how some of these shows flaunt their freakshow appeal and allow us to revel in our superiority, stroking our inner Pharisee, etc – and how that doesn’t stop us from watching them. If anything, it makes us want to watch them more! There’s something almost addictive going on. And the Times writer seems to suggest that we’re all implicated in Armstrong’s death, humanity being the engine and the fuel of this particular machine. In other words, reality TV/Bravo is not the problem here. Top Chef may be a more tame/defensible/righteous(!) expression, but schadenfreude is still a key component. And have no fear, when hurricanes knock your power out, blame-shifting and vicarious negativity quickly find more lo-tech outlets.

More than all that, I suppose Armstrong’s death is a wake-up call about the nature of reality (and God) – that human suffering and ego can only be spun so much. Which is actually rather comforting, at least for those of us who are compulsive moralists and reality TV junkies… After these messages:

Even loyal viewers of the shows have to know that these characters are playing a bit of a con game, one in which we are complicit. We know that not all of them are the millionaires they pretend to be — that they are social climbers who will never reach the next rung, that the mansions they live in are on the verge of foreclosure, that the million-dollar deals they always seem to be working on will never come to fruition, that the expensive parties they give or the glamorous vacations they go on have been subsidized by second-tier vendors looking for some prime-time exposure. But we go along with the game, because it makes for fun TV.

And, yes, the reports of the various legal issues (investigations ensued after Michaele Salahi found a way into a White House state dinner), financial problems (more than a handful of cast members have had to declare bankruptcy, like Teresa Giudice and Sonja Morgan) or marital disputes (to name just one example, Tamra Barney’s estranged husband was arrested after an argument) may cause a moment or two of discomfort. But it takes something as chilling as a suicide, a real-life event intruding on “reality” TV, that finally makes us start to wonder why we are actually still watching these shows.

Soul-searching is not something that comes naturally in these corners of the industry, but the discomfort of the mogul I spoke with at lunch (an executive who has no connection to Bravo) suggests that some is taking place.

These reality shows are never going to go off the air,” said Gary Lico, the chief executive of CableU, a research firm that analyzes the cable industry. “We know that.”

He said he was disappointed that “most of America is immune to the bigger issue here,” the issue being mental health. He recalled attending a television conference last year where both a producer and a network executive, in separate sessions, talked about recruiting people with bipolar disorders for reality shows.

A production company can edit someone in and out of a scene, or in and out of a show, but when the rest of the “reality” is evident on entertainment Web sites and magazine covers, the editing has less effect. Reality always intrudes.