(The Root) — Reality television is exploitative by definition. It's a fishbowl with sharks — entertainment at its most primitive. You root for the good guys, boo for the baddies and gasp when a table gets flipped or a drink gets thrown. Simple.
But in Lifetime's new reality series The Houstons: On Our Own, the formula gets a bit complicated as the masks of comedy and tragedy melt into a hot mess.
Debuting on Wednesday night, fewer than nine months after Whitney Houston's death in February, the show chronicles the grief-stricken survivors of the Houston clan: sister-in-law Pat, brother Gary, mommy Cissy and, of course, daughter Bobbi Kristina (and her "brother-boyfriend," Nick). Something of a macabre crew.
Appearing on The View earlier this week, Pat Houston, Whitney's longtime manager, batted down criticism that the show could be summed up in just two words: "too soon."
But even while being polite, Barbara Walters wouldn't back down. "Would Bobbi Kristina not have been better off if you didn't do a reality show? If you didn't show her visiting her mother's grave with cameras on her? If you just let her grow up to have a life without the kind of attention that maybe contributed in a way perhaps to her own mother's death?"
Pat explained that 19-year-old Bobbi Kristina, the only child of Whitney and Bobby Brown, "has had cameras following her since she was born." This, I guess, we're supposed to believe is a good thing? Or perhaps a necessary evil?
"Too soon" has become a pat comeback lately. When someone jokes about a hideous haircut moments after you've stopped crying? Too soon. When Mitt Romney holds a press conference criticizing the Obama administration the morning after the Benghazi, Libya, attack? Too soon. And when a famous family enters the reality arena months after a tragedy? Too soon.
So about those cameras.
Premiering two episodes back-to-back on Wednesday, The Houstons is hardly thrilling enough to devote an hour of your life to. (But honestly, what reality show is?) The show lacks a center, an emotional or physical headquarters, aside from the obvious fact of Whitney's tragic death, making the entire enterprise — this close to Halloween — seem more morbid than anything.
What's most creepy is when The Houstons attempts to toe the line between cinema verité and playing to the cameras. There is a "hyperawareness" — as a Salon review pointed out — that seems to permeate the "reality," like watching a clown tell jokes even after the makeup is removed. Take, for example, how Bobbi Kristina earnestly describes her parents as "the infamous badass and the beautiful princess." It's as if she dictating the tagline of a celebrity tell-all.
Even aunt-in-chief Pat, who claimed on The View that this show was a "continuation" of another project she'd been working on for years called Powerbrokers, seems to be in on the tasteless joke. "Everything is Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston," she explains to her husband, Gary, as the two try to figure out their strategy when it comes to the adolescent Bobbi Kristina.
"But the reality is, that was her mother," Pat continues, "and it's very difficult to deal with her sometimes because the world is so involved in our family and what we do."
It's as if the retorts you're supposed to yell at the TV just write themselves.
In the first episode, the family travels from Atlanta to New York to spend Mother's Day with Cissy, Whitney's mother, and to visit the singer's New Jersey grave site for the first time. As they join hands around her tombstone, Whitney's voice intones in the background, "I love the Lord."
Just a few scenes before that, Bobbi Kristina sort of announces that she and Nick — a family friend who has been mistakenly identified as Whitney's adopted son — are engaged. The two live together in the house they shared with Whitney. There's also the issue of Bobbi Kristina's drinking. Plus her distant relationship with her grandmother. All in the first episode.
By the second episode, Bobbi Kristina's drinking seems to have gotten worse. But in the final scene, as she slurs her words, stumbles clumsily and drops a to-go box of food, shouting "Scallops down!" it seems like more of an act than acting out — as if she's pantomiming what a drunken and grief-stricken celebrity kid should look like on her way to an intervention. Coincidentally, the "tension" in this episode builds when Bobbi Kristina blows off a meeting with an acting coach that Auntie Pat set up.
Given what most viewers know about reality television these days — namely, that it's rarely real — it seems an unoriginal critique to say that The Houstons lacks a real heart. But when the news peg of the show seems hinged on an actual heartbreaking event — the death of a daughter, sister and mother — the truth shouldn't be so hard to see.