As expected, Bravo's second season premiere of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" was a ratings bonanza in the wake of Russell Armstrong's death, with 2.2 million people tuning in (a 42 percent increase over the first season's debut).
But now that we've seen the hastily re-edited debut, will viewers stick around?
Most critics were definitely not wowed. The Los Angeles Times called the season debut a "creepy necro-party game," while Entertainment Weekly sighed, "Russell’s death is the only thing that made the hour remotely bearable." The episode, which spent a mere four minutes on Armstrong's death before merrily bouncing to minor dramas and petty squabbling, was jarring by any standard.
Still, the fact remains that the show established a formidable following in its first season on the air. The Beverly Hills edition of the "Real Housewives" franchise performed consistently last season, with the Jan. 20 finale luring in 4.2 million viewers (a result only marginally bested by "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" finale's 4.4 million).
Ironically, it's doubtful Taylor's fracturing marriage was much of a draw in season one, as other relationship meltdowns proved more compelling. It was the drama between Kyle Richards and Camille Grammer that drove the season, with Kyle's ongoing friction with her sister Kim playing a secondary role.
But we've heard plenty about how the crumbling of Taylor and Russell's marriage was supposed to be a major player in the plot this time around, and though we will be seeing some of Taylor's angst (as we did in the season debut), there's probably a limit as to how far Bravo wants to go down that path. More importantly, last season's reliable drama generator may be defanged this season, as Kyle has promised that things are better between herself and Camille. After Russell (and probably a fair amount of Taylor) ends up on the editing room floor, what will be left beyond Lisa Vanderpump washing her small, mostly bald dog Giggy? I know from interviewing Kyle that Kim steps up as a more formidable presence this year, but the real pressure will be on two new additions to the show: Brandi Glanville and Dana Wilkey.
Listed as "friends of the 'Housewives'," these women have largely been overshadowed by recent events. Glanville promises to bring some celebrity-connected drama to the show as the former model actor Eddie Cibrian ("The Playboy Club") dumped for singer LeAnn Rimes, plus what we see of her in the promo - screeching obscenities and battling with the other housewives as Kim calls her a "slut pig" and Brandi fires back that Kim uses crystal meth -- suggests she'll be available to drag the series into lowbrow catfighting should any of the existing cast be too well-behaved.
But no matter how much well-orchestrated hysteria the show throws at us, Russell's death hangs over the show like a shroud. As the Chicago Sun-Times said, this guilty pleasure now feels "more guilty than pleasurable," and I have to think critics aren't the only ones finding it hard to shrug off a real-life death that the show devoted relatively little time to addressing. I'll be watching, but I won't be surprised if viewers find themselves looking elsewhere for their junk food TV.