'Run's House:' Reality TV Gets Real

When “Run’s House” began on MTV three seasons ago, the plot line was family life with a hip-hop twist. Joseph Simmons (a.k.a. Rev Run of the seminal rap group Run-D.M.C.) was cast in the classic “Father Knows Best” role, with his wife, Justine, and five children cheerfully going along for the ride. Most of their antics were lighthearted fare—an over-the-top high-school graduation party, homework problems, the saga of one child wanting to move out on her own—made all the more comical because Simmons is both a rich semi-celebrity and a real reverend, and a stern one at that.

But lighthearted wasn’t the tone when the show returned last night. Last season ended with Justine, 43, several months pregnant and the family preparing for the birth. But the comedy took a tragic turn. Justine was rushed to the hospital—with the cameras rolling—and given an emergency C-section. The baby, who was named Victoria Anne, lived less than two hours. Suddenly, the family and MTV faced a difficult situation, and a big question: when does reality become too much for reality TV?

For the devoutly religious Simmons, the answer was surprisingly easy. Simmons says that moment the baby was born, MTV asked if the family wanted the cameras turned off. Their answer: no. “How could I let the TV cameras in when me and my family were out bowling and laughing and not let them in when we suffering and grieving? Life does not work like that,’’ Simmons told NEWSWEEK. “And when we decided to do this show we knew it was going to capture the good and bad, the happy and the sad, and we were all OK with that.’’

Part of the decision of going full force with the cameras in tow was that Simmons and his wife found out the baby was ill midway through the pregnancy. A sonogram indicated that their developing girl had an omphalocele, a birth defect that caused her organs to grow on the outside of her body. But the couple decided to inform only their bishop of the news. MTV didn’t know until the baby was born. Neither did the Simmons children. “We knew of families that had similar bad news before their babies were born and everything turned out fine,’’ says Justine. “We had our faith, and our faith told us that God could give us a miracle and this baby could be a healthy baby born with no problems. That’s the attitude we took.’’

The couple says they also decided against telling others to avoid unwanted opinions and negative feelings and focused on their decision to go forward with the pregnancy. (The Simmonses do not believe in abortion.) “You know people can bring you down and make you question your decisions,’’ says Rev. Run. “We didn’t want that—we wanted to stay in a positive place and we think that’s what God wanted for us as well. It was our decision and ours alone and we had the right to make it. As a man of faith, I had to follow the thinking that all things happen for a reason and if this child didn’t make it, there was a reason.’’

MTV was naturally unsure what to do in light of the heart-wrenching turn of events. “They were concerned for us and for the tragedy that had just happened. They had no idea, so they were just as upset as we were, really,” Simmons says. “But I told them, ‘This is what life is about. I may be famous, I may be rich, I may have bling, but tragedy comes to my door just as it does anybody else’s, and that’s a message that cannot be pressed hard enough in today’s society where celebrities are so much on a pedestal.’’’

The cameras didn’t capture the actual birth of the baby for the show’s debut, but they do record the couple’s other children and their reaction to the death of their sister. It’s clear they don’t know what to say or even how to feel. Their faces immediately lose all expression. This is reality in its most unhappy form. “We’d prepared our children for life’s lessons and we knew they could handle it,’’ says Simmons of his decision to let the children learn of the death on camera. “We don’t act any different off-camera than we do on. My kids are very fortunate and they know that. We’ve taught them that we are blessed even if things don’t go as we want them to.’’ The rest of the episode features Simmons instructing his kids how to handle well-wishers and encouraging them, particularly his three boys, to speak out about their feelings.

It’s a stirring moment in the episode that seems to move in slow motion. But isn’t it, in its way, exploiting their own tragedy? Television—and especially reality television—is increasingly sensationalized. It takes bigger and louder gimmicks just to get noticed. Simmons readily admits that the tragedy will probably bring more viewers to “Run’s House.” Just last week, the family appeared on the “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ for the first time. But the former rap giant really doesn’t apologize. In fact, he hopes more people watch, if only to see the example he and his family are trying to make of themselves. “I see babies dying every day on TV of hunger and AIDS. Do you know how many families are losing children in Iraq, in Sudan and Dakar? Those people mourn, but they have to keep going,” he says. “We as a family had to move back to our lives, and the cameras will show that. We couldn’t stop working, going to school or living our lives. This is not just reality TV—this is honesty TV.”