Critic's Notes (Cable)
Drinking and drama on “Vanderpump Rules.”
By Emily Nussbaum, NewYorker.com
- May 23, 2016 Issue
Beyoncé’s sumptuous adultery opera “Lemonade” came out the week that I began watching the Bravo reality series “Vanderpump Rules,” and it turned out to be an oddly appropriate soundtrack for the show. “What’s worse? Looking jealous or crazy?” Beyoncé croons in the video, swinging a baseball bat labelled “Hot Sauce.” “I really don’t want to cry off all this makeup I just put on,” a waitress named Scheana says on the show, struggling to compose herself for a photo shoot. “Something’s telling me I may or may not have a fake friend,” Ariana, another waitress, seethes, glaring over at Scheana.
I’d downloaded “Vanderpump Rules” onto my phone, so that I could watch the show’s four seasons more efficiently: on the F train, in line at the supermarket, and while drifting off to sleep, an approach that felt less like binge-watching than like inserting an I.V. of sangria. A humble spinoff of the sprawling “Real Housewives” multiverse, “Vanderpump Rules” revolves around the employees of SUR (an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant), a West Hollywood venue owned by Lisa Vanderpump, a longtime cast member of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which ended its sixth season last week. I’d fallen so far behind on that show, I’d never catch up. Rather than approach the intimidating portal of the original franchise, with its decade-long cross-series feuds, jail sentences, life-style brands, divorces, and handbag lines, I would sneak in through the servants’ entrance.
When the “Real Housewives” franchise débuted, in 2006, set in Orange County, I was a deep devotee of the reality genre. I was an O.G. “Big Brother” Web-watcher and a “Real World” completist, and caught up on shows from “The Amazing Race” to “Wife Swap.” Yet “The Real Housewives” left me cold. It rankled me in a way that earlier shows—even schlock like “Joe Millionaire”—had not. The few episodes I saw felt like misogynist vaudeville, with cast members monetizing the world’s ugliest portrayals of women, a type of auto-drag, humiliating rather than quasi-celebratory. Over the years, I developed a private theory about the franchise’s appeal: when the New York version became an enormous hit, around 2008, it felt like a cultural conspiracy to distract the world from the almost universally male villains of the financial crash. Rather than satirize rich men in suits, the show put the bull’s-eyes on their trophy wives, painting them as vain parasites, symbols of greed—consumerist gargoyles who might absorb the fury that was more logically directed at Wall Street itself.
That seemed plausible, and maybe it was a little bit true. But, then again, I’d never really watched the “Housewives.” For one thing, the women weren’t married to any hedge-fund quants. It’s always easier to condescend to a reality show before you start watching it—and watching it, and watching it. This is true of almost all reality soaps: the pleasure is less in the show than in the bubbly, cathartic, alternately cruel and tender talk that surrounds it, with its Wikipedian rabbit-holes and weirdly therapeutic reunions and after-shows, the fizzy in-jokes of a largely queer and female audience. Watching “Vanderpump” felt less like watching TV than like becoming a sports fan. One minute, the show was a grim slog, a repetitive ritual that threatened to drag on forever, like baseball. The next minute, it was aggressively fun—the kind of thing that makes your heart leap whenever a fight breaks out, like hockey! To enjoy it, you just have to ignore the potential brain damage for the players once the game ends, as with football.
The premise of “Vanderpump Rules” is simple enough: a group of hot people work at a restaurant, which is run by a wealthy woman with a taste for neon pink and small dogs. Early on, the employees are mostly dull couples, but invariably they cheat, break up, and re-form new friendships and romantic pairings, absorbing once excluded newcomers and icing out former B.F.F.s. Lisa Vanderpump comes off as the Aaron Burr of “The Real Housewives,” elegant and inscrutable; as Lin-Manuel Miranda might put it, she sexts less, smiles more—you wouldn’t want to face her in a duel. The members of her waitstaff, in contrast, are weepy and easily enraged, and despite the show’s contrivances the milieu is not unrealistic. Maybe they wouldn’t crash quite so many engagement parties, but the characters—part-time models with vague plans to be ultra-famous—aren’t that different from other L.A. waiters. It’s a reality show about the people most likely to agree to appear on a reality show.
* * * *
One of my favorite current series is Rachel Bloom’s musical comedy, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” on the CW, which does a wonderfully empathetic job exploring what it feels like to be a female chaos magnet, self-destructive and longing for love. And yet I’ve never entirely understood one of the main relationships on the show, the toxic romance between the surfer-bro Josh and his fiancée, the hot yoga instructor Valencia, who nags and bullies him nonstop. “Vanderpump Rules” helped me get it, because that show is pretty much a Neapolitan dessert made up entirely of Joshes and Valencias. The same conflict recurs over and over, the sympathies shifting, in a drama you might call “the betrayed princess”: A sexy, bossy girl dates a man who barely has a job. Then things blow up when—take your pick—he cheats in Las Vegas, reveals a pill addiction, or steals sunglasses in Hawaii. These betrayals are both real and imaginary: it’s hard for a viewer to be disturbed when it’s unclear which emotions are genuine and which have been scripted, an ambiguity that protects you from destabilizing empathy. And yet there’s something legitimately poignant about the show’s “Lemonade”-flavored blend of grandiosity and fragility. There may not be any potential Beyoncés at SUR, but there are many girls who think of themselves, not unreasonably, as vulnerable public brands. When you believe you’re the show’s romantic lead, it’s extra-hideous to realize that you’re the dupe in a low-rent sex comedy, breaking into some guy’s iPhone to find shady Uber receipts. Or, as Beyoncé sings, on “Hold Up,” “I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless.”
At times, the SUR universe can seem as creepily misogynist (and as thrillingly stylized) as the ballet world in “Black Swan”—put on those painful shoes and, lady, someone’s going to bleed. Slutty girls call other girls “skanks.” Skanky girls call other girls “pathetic.” All of them pretend to be chill babes who don’t mind their boyfriends taking a guys-only trip to Vegas—but, eventually, most end up nagging for a ring. As it went on, “Vanderpump Rules” began to remind me of an old saying: that, after straight couples break up, all ex-girlfriends are “crazy,” while all ex-boyfriends are either “confused” or “*******s.” Meanwhile, the men engage in a conspiracy of “bro-code,” which is broken so often that it’s more of a bro guideline. Perversely, the worst thing that you can accuse someone of is being “judgmental.”
The cast members themselves are somehow both memorable and interchangeable. There’s Stassi, a grownup version of the nasty little girl in the “Free to Be . . . You and Me” fable “Ladies First,” the one who gets eaten by tigers. Stassi’s ex-boyfriend, Jax, is pretty much a sociopath: he’s an admitted thief who cheats and lies. (“He’s had three noses in one year,” Lisa Vanderpump observes. “He doesn’t understand the word ‘commitment.’ ”) There’s a selection of sulky brunettes, including Katie, “the Shakespeare of rage-texting.” Black waitresses get sidelined, treated as sexless confidants or silent extras. (There’s a lot of weird racial stuff in the mix, as the nearly all-white cast gossips about who qualifies as a “ghetto bitch” or a “ratchet whorebag.”) There’s also a nudist trickster named Lala, and Ariana, a hipster comic, who startled me when she complained—during yet another fight over whether a boyfriend should go to Vegas—that she hated “heteronormative ****ing bull****.” The nice men are hard to tell apart, since half of them seem to be named Tom.
It’s easy to make fun of these characters—the show is designed to encourage it—but, to judge from the after-show, they’re often in on the joke. And it’s not as if anyone who has been through a bad breakup hasn’t been there, pathetic/judgmental/skank-wise. But there are hints of darker themes, especially when it comes to sex. A couple gets engaged, then never, ever gets laid. After a breakup, each partner denounces the other for carnal acts committed on a cursed IKEA-ish sofa—or, alarmingly often, while they’re so drunk that they have a debate about whether anything even happened. Ugly details like this surface, then get abandoned, or treated as a joke, because the show is contractually obligated to party on. The true climax of Season 4 was a tiny moment when a minor character, a waitress who’d just hooked up with a busboy/d.j., yelled for her jealous ex to remove his microphone. It was the rare indication that anyone knew that they were on TV, a titillating exposure that felt sexier than pixelated D-cups could ever be.
Many years ago, I wrote a profile of a new bar in Los Angeles, which was run by Mike (Boogie) Malin, one of the villains of an early season of “Big Brother.” Back then, he was still licking his wounds, confused by his ruinous experience on the show; a few years later, he won one of the All-Star competitions and was back on top. But he was just one of many former reality stars floating around Hollywood, disrupting the ecosystem of fame. They were thirsty, to use the modern term; they wanted it too much. The truth is, the most nuanced perspective on reality may be found not in the shows themselves but in parodies of them, like the champagne-bubbly satire “The Hotwives of Orlando,” on Hulu, and the smart, dark, meditative behind-the-scenes drama “UnREAL,” on Lifetime, which returns for its second season in June. These shows capture the genre from the inside, exploring the vulnerability of those who keep trying to beat a system that, like a casino, rarely lets any player win for long. I still sometimes have the urge to critique the reality machine; it’s certainly asking for it. But it’s also true that reality is where the action is. It’s an easily mocked mass artistic medium that’s corrupted by half-hidden deals, but it also provides a magnetizing mirror for the culture, dirty and mesmerizing. It’s television’s television.