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Something’s rotten in the state of Bravo

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MARCH 21, 2023

Being a snob gets exhausting. Media consumption towards purely intellectual ends is unsustainable and borders on masochistic. For days when the thought of watching a Criterion Collection film or, God forbid, cracking the spine of a book conjures a wave of nausea, I turn to reality TV.

My drug of choice is “Vanderpump Rules,” an offshoot of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” The show follows the waitstaff of restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump, who is in many ways the matriarch of both shows. It’s a show where very little work gets done, drinks fly through the air at the slightest disagreement and everyone hooks up with everyone. The show assumes a baseline of evil in every cast member. Accordingly, it’s no longer TV that deals in the binary of good or bad, but bad and worse — and still, victim and perpetrator.

I’ve struggled to decipher my love affair with “Vanderpump Rules” for some time now. I think part of its appeal for me derives from this latter quality — moral dubiousness as status quo. The other part has something to do with the subconscious reason we all watch reality TV: It evinces a facsimile of a lifestyle we at least intermittently desire.

It’s easy to become bewitched by “Vanderpump Rules” in particular because of the motionlessness of it all. The only social mobility is lateral; these people work the same service jobs for half a decade and take years to furnish their apartments with the same IKEA furniture. Work is peripheral and leisure is paramount. New Yorker staffer Naomi Fry, perhaps the most vocal proponent of the show among the intelligentsia, describes it as “that burnout friend who always urges you to take that smoke break, to have another drink, to call in sick to work.”

Early seasons of “Vanderpump Rules,” bathed in the amniotic fluid of breezy stagnation, took a turn for the worse when productivity and the family unit became compulsory. They published books, got married and opened up bars. Concurrently, the show sought to impose half-baked moral strictures for the cast to operate within the confines of. Figures like Lala Kent appropriated post-Trump feminist verbiage to the sex lives of the group. All of a sudden, the fraught, crosshatched romantic lives of the cast were imbued with a top-down morality and corresponding lexicon.

What inevitably got lost when this shift occurred was the broad understanding that “Vanderpump Rules” is a show about bad people and narcissists. It’s a little ridiculous to quibble over whether they “support girls” or seek to understand their actions any other way — but that’s exactly what occurred both on the show and on social media by its fans. 

After falling off the wagon a few seasons back, “Vanderpump Rules” has once again entered the cultural consciousness owing to a blowout affair. In early March 2023 it was revealed that Raquel Leviss and Tom Sandoval had carried on an affair during the filming of Season 10, which is currently airing. Post-Vanderpump paradigm shift, this scandal (dubbed Scandoval) is poised to be received by both Bravo and audiences in a radically different way than the Jax-Kristen, Jax-Faith infidelity scandals of yore. 

Twitter users are calling for Leviss’ and Sandavoval’s firing, and there is considerable doubt that both or one of them will show up to film the reunion. Parasociality is endemic to reality TV — that’s the entire point. But “Vanderpump Rules” as a cultural phenomenon has twisted it into something wholly unrecognizable from the ways we watched shows like “Jersey Shore,” or even “Love Island.” Suddenly there’s a need to prop up the likes of Leviss, Sandavol, Tom Schwarz, DJ James Kennedy, etc. as pylons of morality, to hold them to the same standards we hope we’d hold the people in our lives to.

A similar audience moral reckoning has taken place recently surrounding scandals that have occurred on other Bravo shows, namely “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” These scandals have been legal in nature, and thus reflect a metastasized immorality from the kind we see on “Vanderpump Rules.” Still, these scandals lend zest to the interpersonal drama of the shows. So why are we so obsessed with publicly disavowing the individuals involved when all it does is make things less fun for us, the viewers?

The cognitive dissonance this requires is twofold: Not only is it illogical to moralize reality stars by virtue of their profession (being awful is the most important prerequisite), it also makes the show worse. It’s simply more fun to watch terrible people be terrible, and I think we need to become more okay with admitting that. 

The Scandoval makes me optimistic for the future of the show. I hope it signals a return to the halcyon days of Jax Taylor’s philandering and its subsequent nuclear fallout. We might never be able to recapture the easy (dare I say anti-capitalist) serendipity that was the show in the early days (when they all shared apartments in West Hollywood instead of McMansions in Valley Village), but at least the drama is back in business.

Contact Emma Murphree at 


MARCH 21, 2023