How Television Responded To The Passing Of Whitney Houston
Who could have imagined one week ago that CBS’ telecast last Sunday of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards would be so historic and so highly rated for so sad and terrible a reason? The sudden death of Whitney Houston the night before resonated throughout, adding a genuine emotional undercurrent to an event that is often as distant and hollow as most Hollywood award shows.
LL Cool J handled what had to be an uncommonly difficult hosting gig with grand grace and dignity, but also with good humor and outsize charm. (If I ran the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, I would already be pursuing him as my host of choice for this year’s Emmy Awards. His thoughtful energy is exactly what that often-airless ceremony needs.) Jennifer Hudson’s stirring rendition of “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to Ms. Houston was an unforgettable television moment that will be recalled and replayed for years to come.
With all due respect, as I listened throughout the Grammys to so many of her friends and peers declare their longtime love for Houston, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them had actually rolled up their sleeves and tried to help her deal with her well-documented demons over the years. Isn’t that the greatest love of all -- being there for someone in desperate trouble and helping them as much as possible without fear of confrontation or fallout? Similarly, as the week went on, it grew increasingly difficult to hear people (many of them from the music industry) talk so lovingly on so many news and infotainment programs about Houston’s too-short life and brilliant career. I wonder to what degree any of them attempted to intercede on her behalf and assist her in seeking the medical attention that might have helped her remain healthy and perhaps saved her life.
Ignorance of the depressing details of Houston’s life in recent years is not an excuse. Her issues were widely exploited by the media, from tabloid magazines to online gossip columns to television clip-shows. Indeed, there was no more explicit a presentation of Houston’s unfortunate circumstances than the revolting 2005 Bravo reality series “Being Bobby Brown,” which disturbingly and depressingly offered an ugly, unflattering look into the lives of Houston and Brown during what would be one of the final years of their marriage. Why a luminous star of Houston’s magnitude ever agreed to descend into the muck of reality television remains a mystery.
The most impactful commentary I heard about Houston’s death this week came Wednesday night on Piers Morgan’s CNN talk show. Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx -- an alcoholic and drug abuser in recovery -- wondered why Houston’s friends and associates (whom he referred to as “enablers”) sat idly by while she consumed alcohol (even in limited quantities) or took drugs of any kind, given her history and her own public admissions of her substance abuse problems. “What’s scummy about the music industry is, everybody loves you when you’re dead,” he declared with a searing candor I hadn’t heard from anyone else who has commented on Houston’s passing. Sixx revealed that he finally got sober and stayed that way only when his manager bravely threatened to walk away from him. “That was the kick in the ass I needed to put myself in rehab and pull my life together,” he said.
Sixx’s remarks on Wednesday were thoughtful and constructive, and they made for important television. Not so those of Nancy Grace and Dan Abrams on Thursday’s edition of “Good Morning America.” Abrams was in attack mode, determined to pull an apology out of Grace for an instantly controversial suggestion she made Monday on CNN that Houston’s death might have been a homicide. I believe she was trying to explain that one of the things that the Los Angeles coroner’s office would determine via autopsy was whether or not Houston, who reportedly died in a hotel room bathtub, was pushed under water. But greater clarity and sensitivity to the situation were called for, and it was not one of Grace’s better moments. Of course, Grace is known for her arch directness and off-putting abrasiveness, at least on camera, so nothing she says should come as a shock or surprise.
Abrams, though, was similarly out of line when he interviewed her yesterday on “GMA.” He seemed more interested in putting Grace in her place and getting her to apologize than in doing what a news interviewer should do, which is to get his subject (in this case Grace) to explain herself and leave it to viewers to decide if they accept what they hear. Nothing instructive came out of the Abrams-Grace clash. Indeed, it may be that Grace’s comments received more publicity as a result of her “GMA” appearance than they did at the time she made them.