In 2009, Oprah Winfrey asked Whitney Houston if the 2005 Bravo series Being Bobby Brown highlighted the dysfunction between her and her husband, with whom she appeared alongside. Responding with a real, honest, deep laugh, Whitney said, "Yeah! I do! I sure do! Yeah!"
Their 15-year marriage was one Whitney had deemed "emotionally abusive" in the same interview. Moreover, she seemed to agree when Oprah brought up the unanimous critique that the show was a "train wreck." ("Yeah. It's crazy. It's madness," Whitney admitted.)
Above all this, Whitney could look back and laugh. Some things are just so true that they can't not be funny.
When Whitney Houston died earlier this year, kicking up a good month's worth of discourse about her life, her career, her addiction, cautionary tales and how we treat our celebrity royalty in general, Being Bobby Brown was something of a taboo topic. Out of respect for the dead, we were implicitly urged not to look back on what's considered her darkest public hour.
As someone so sentimental about Whitney's death that I had two dreams after that fooled me into being relieved that she was still alive and that this was all one big mistake, I don't think Being Bobby Brown was her darkest hour. Seven years to the day after it debuted, it still plays remarkably well. It's funny and weird and disgusting and profanely honest. Because she admitted that she was using drugs during the filming (and it shows – there are scenes that are just she and Bobby sitting around and being high), and because there were traces of cocaine in her system at the time of her particularly ghoulish death, it would be fair to interpret Being Bobby Brown as a tangible sign of Houston's demise. Ironically, it found her more alive than ever.
That's at least where we the people are concerned. We've never been allowed such an intimate view into the mundane side of an iconic celebrity's life. This was the daily grit like we'd never seen it before. As far as I know, no superstar diva had ever left a public record of her farting before Being Bobby Brown, and I haven't seen any since. The Whitney of Being Bobby Brown is fidgety and difficult, prone to head coverings and early departures. She's a pop music enthusiast who bursts into song, loves her husband, loves her daughter more, laughs a lot and says goofy things. She breaks the fourth wall immediately – the first time we see Whitney, about seven minutes into the first episode, she acknowledges the camera and pulls away her husband that she hasn't seen in a month to have sex with him in a bedroom (it's only later that she realizes he hasn't yet seen their daughter, Bobbi-Kristina). He had just gotten out of jail and was facing charges for domestic abuse. In the second episode, Whitney, the potential star witness for the prosecution, attends his hearing by his side.
The self-entitlement of the Browns is palpable – they're rarely dressed up on Being Bobby Brown because they didn't have to be. They don't do very much to "make" the show either – this was before screaming and table-flipping were de rigueur on reality TV. The biggest outward signs of drama that we're treated to are bickering and whining. The show itself is oddly matter-of-fact – episodes generally have a loose organizing structure (camping, London, Mother's Day, Bobby's music recording) but there are no discernible fake setups, a hallmark of "candid" reality TV. Mostly, they just sit around, eat and go shopping. As public behavior for two titans of pop culture, Being Bobby Brown counts as phoning it in, but it works because they are inherently fascinating people. At one point on a red carpet, Bobby refers to them as "America's entertainers" to a journalist. This is all the m.o. they need.
Being Bobby Brown is an inherent meditation on fame and attention because reality TV is often where careers go to die, and this was especially true in 2005, when it was still stigmatized as the last-resort circuit. Bobby's career had virtually evaporated at that point – he hadn't released an album since 1997's Forever and hadn't had a Top 40 hit since 1992's "Get Away" (he still hasn't, in fact). Whitney Houston, on the other hand, was Whitney Houston and though 2002's Just Whitney album was a flop, her early triumphs were so immense that she was guaranteed a spot on the A-list for life. She was the focal point of Being Bobby Brown, and she didn't even need her name in the title to draw a crowd. She was so important to the series that her refusal to participate in a partially filmed second season is believed to be the reason that it never aired.
More than once, a scene's punch line involves Bobby failing to be recognized, requiring the explanation that he's Whitney Houston's husband. This happens in front of the Dali Lama. Elsewhere, Bobby swings back and forth from humility to egoism — despite his inertia, he talks about how no one in the R&B game at the time could match him. Together, he and Whitney share a very complicated loving and loathing of fame. They were resting on it by just padding out in sweatpants and sitting down in front of cameras to make a show, but they also rant about it. There are several scenes in which Whitney reacts to public admirers with hostility. As she's attempting to eat in an outside area and is ogled, she screams, "Ma'am please! Be me for a minute." And yet, there are gentler interactions, like one at a Von Dutch store in Los Angeles, where she sings a bit of "I'm Every Woman," is thanked by an employee and says, "You're welcome." She ends up dancing with a young man named Andre J, who would in a few years turn up on a cover of French Vogue, after she finds out that he's from her hometown of Newark.
As much as Whitney and Bobby seemed to deplore the hassle their status brought, they were never afraid to use it when convenient. When asked by an interviewer if the show that they were filming would compare to the then-airing Jessica Simpson/Nick Lachey MTV reality show The Newlyweds, Whitney scrunches up her nose. "They're cute, but we're Whitney and Bobby," she says dismissively.
"I just want to be a real person," Whitney whines at one point in the premiere when she's surrounded by people holding then-novel camera phones. And for better and certainly worse, she got her wish with Being Bobby Brown. There is nothing that you can point to on this show that appears to be fabricated. Even Bobby's narration is understated and clipped so as to meditate on what we just saw instead of setting up the action. There is very clear mugging for the sake of production, but even that is often accompanied by artifice-obliterating stares straight into the cameras.
Being Bobby Brown has a somewhat undeserved reputation for being a low point of reality TV. It's too trashy, too sad, too full of dysfunction. But that is its genius. These people set out to do a reality show, and oh boy did they deliver the most uniformly real picture of celebrity downtime and codependency that reality TV has ever seen. Being Bobby Brown represents an ideal that we imply we're looking for every time we bitch about something on reality TV that is "obviously fake," but also that it turns out that we don't actually want to see.
Of her relationship with Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston told Oprah in the above-referenced interview, "We fought hard, we loved hard." And it was hard to watch — sometimes. The truth hurts, there's hilarity in the truth and in between the two axioms was Being Bobby Brown.