Desperate Housewife: Is Bravo's Kim Richards An Addict?
(page 2)"The show isn't willing to come down and say [her behavior] is because of drinking or medication or whatever, so they leave it at that and the viewer is left to throw out soft allegations," Shaw reasons.
But at what point should the network or production company get involved? Bravo declined to comment, but the former producer of several hit reality shows on network television—who wished to remain anonymous and is not affiliated with the Housewives—spoke candidly about the relationship between networks and their reality cast members.
"Legally shows have to respond if someone asks for help," the former producer said. "But of course [some shows] enable. Unfortunately we've been told that stable, well-adjusted people doing interesting things are boring on television. So you have to make these people more and more horrible each season to make the 'hit' stronger for the audience. In that sense it's the audience who are the junkies…If a Real Housewife is an alcoholic mess, people watch."
Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist on the fifth season of Celebrity Rehab and a faculty member at Harvard Medical, thinks there is a "good case" that networks should be somewhat responsible for the mental and physical health of their reality stars. "If you're gonna spend a lot of your life—for a period of time—in that [reality TV] setting, and if your behavior seems to suggest that you have a medical problem, I think your employer does have some moral, ethical responsibility to point that out," Dr. Sharp says. “That's a little ideal world-ish but that's the high ground for sure. And I doubt that happens as much as we'd like to see."
Patty Powers, a greatly sought-after sober coach who was recently part of A&E's series Relapse, looks at the issue a bit differently. Pointing out that no one goes on Real Housewives for addiction treatment, she argues that the networks are simply employers and shouldn't be held accountable for cast members' problems—unless, of course, that person asks for help.
"These Housewives are paid for services rendered: in this case, for allowing their private lives to become public spectacle," Powers says. "I am sure those involved with the show have discussed with Kim what she wants to do about her drinking and offered her options. Really, that is all anyone can do for her—ultimately, the decision will be hers."
"Most likely, if her drinking becomes problematic, she will be given a choice to get sober or be fired—like any employee whose addiction interferes with their job performance," Powers speculates. "But the network's responsibility is to entertain the audience."
The aforementioned anonymous producer echoed that sentiment, adding, "The honest answer is that TV cares about ratings and money." He revealed that one of the shows he produced had "full psych profiles on everyone—theoretically for their safety, but all the producers used them to push certain buttons to keep people out of their comfort zones."
And on Celebrity Rehab, according to Dr. Sharp, there was a desire for sensationalism from the camera crew, but he said that they had no influence on the actual treatment process.
Sharp describes an on-camera session with a celebrity patient who described, in tears, a recent dream that had led her to suddenly believe she had been molested as a child. "I looked up and I could see a twinkle in the eyes of some of the guys behind the camera, but I told her, 'You know what, in psychiatry we don't believe you can suddenly get in touch with a memory like that. If you had been molested, you would have known it,'" he recalls. Although he could tell people behind the camera "realized [he] wasn't going in the most dramatically interesting direction," no one intervened, complained to him afterward or tried to elicit further confession from the patient.
Sharp says the fear of being involved in an exploitative venture kept him from joining the show's fourth season, but when he signed on for season five, he was impressed with the strictly enforced separation between treatment and production crew, who never made requests or commented on the proceedings to the treatment center's staff.
"That's an example of a network taking responsibility," Sharp says of VH1. "But [those celebrities] were coming for treatment and in Real Housewives they aren't."
And ultimately, there's no way of saying if Kim has a problem, if she's just strange or if she's playing up the whole thing for the camera.
"I would hope that the producers, if they knew Kim was in trouble, would try to help her, step in and offer her some resources," says EW's Shaw. "We just don't know what goes on behind the scenes."
Even if the world of TV is all about dollars and viewership numbers, Powers sees a clear upside to the prevalence of addiction-related programming and the fact that these discussions are even happening. "In 2011, the general public—partly because of television—is beginning to grasp that alcoholism and addiction is a disease and not a moral deficiency,” she says. “Now rather than abandon them, people generally have hope the addicts they know can recover."
Joe Lynch grew up in Saint Paul, MN, and is now yet another writer living in Brooklyn. You can find his writing in Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo TV and New York Magazine's Vulture. He previously wrote about Intervention for The Fix.