By Anne T. Donahue
Back in 2018, I had a podcast where guests came on and talked to me something they were obsessed with, and that’s how I learned about Vanderpump Rules.
Obviously I’d heard about the show before, but the entire premise scared me. The series focused on the 20-something servers and bartenders employed at Lisa Vanderpump’s SUR, who were, by definition, terrible. They acted out and acted foolish, and they had names like “Stassi” and “Jax” and “Lala.” My pal Scaachi had chosen Vanderpump for her obsession, and she assured me that should I actually give it my time, it would pay off in the end. I agreed, but only because I wasn’t about to act like I thought I was better than reality television (even though I absolutely thought I was better than reality television). But then, out of boredom and the desperation to understand what people were tweeting about, I indulged. And that’s when my life changed forever.
I think by now, in the year of our lord 2023, we all know that not a single soul is above reality television, especially since it’s everywhere: it’s sports, it’s Guy’s Grocery Games, it’s DJ James Kennedy screaming that it’s “not about the pasta.” Anything that’s unscripted is arguably a form of reality TV, and if you think there’s a better avenue through which to examine the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition, you’ve clearly never seen grown women come to near-blows over ordering Kendall Jenner’s tequila. (Even though that Housewives storyline was tragically drawn out and did not entertain me in the slightest.)
Yet despite the fact that reality TV provides the basis for countless sociological studies, what I learned through my indoctrination into the Bravoverse was less about what some people are capable of, and more about community. Mainly, I’d never felt so close to my friends and fellow TV watchers as I did when I became fluent in SUR-speak. And nothing drove that point home like the happenings of this weekend.
In case you managed to escape social media, here’s the Coles Notes version of what went down: Vanderpump Rules’s Raquel Leviss and Tom Sandoval had an affair. This was shocking and gross for a number of reasons (all of which have to do with Sandoval being involved), but the biggest was that Tom had been in a nine-year relationship with fellow cast member, Ariana Madix, who discovered the months-long dalliance by stumbling upon an incriminating video on Tom’s phone. As a result, the Vanderpump world imploded: one cast member allegedly punched Raquel in the face, others took to social media to declare war on the worst couple since Elon Musk and Grimes, and both Tom and Raquel issued statements that tried to paint them in a flattering-ish light. For the last few days, every day has been rich in Vanderpump gossip and updates. Nothing else in pop culture has mattered. The pay-off Scaachi promised me had come to fruition, and we are all reaping the benefits of having spent our precious, limited time with a bunch of weirdos who mistake “cis” for “cyst.” (Actually, that was just Tom Sandoval. But I still can’t believe it.) I have also never felt so surrounded.
Which I mean in the best way. Outside of shows like Succession, White Lotus, and their fellow HBO contemporaries, watching television has become an increasingly solitary experience. Sure, we all watch the same things, and yes, we all have opinions on what’s-his-name and such-and-such, but for the most part, we soak up our entertainment alone or with a very, very select few. It’s rare to congregate en masse on the internet and scream our thoughts into the abyss, and rarer still for the abyss to answer back. But this weekend, thanks to Vanderpump, that norm shifted: for the last half-week, we’ve been experiencing a cultural gong show collectively as we revelled in the mess of a group that couldn’t possibly have seemed to get messier.
And damn it, but it’s become unifying. It’s fun to congregate in DMs and via stories, comparing theories and notes and forcing like minds to remember when Tom Sandoval had long hair. To witness the trials and tribulations of people who willingly shared intimate parts of their lives on-camera for the sake of our entertainment has become a conversational gift that’s managed to reconnect old friends, ignite new friendships, and help us find common ground with former enemies. This personal business is our business because the stars of Vanderpump Rules have made it that way for ten completely unhinged seasons. Yes, we may be dissecting the real relationships of people who are very real and very alive, but unlike the private lives of movie stars who owe us nothing, reality relationships have been presented to us on silver, networked platters, begging us to follow along as they evolve, disintegrate, or combust.
And follow I will, into the darkest depths of TMZ breaking news. I will awake every morning and ask what’s next before taking to my DMs to continue bonding with friends and fellow viewers like it’s the 1990s and Rachel has slept with Ross again. I will lead conversations with “Do you watch Vanderpump?” as a means of gauging whether or not I have something in common with a person I just met. I will propose theories, over-analyze official statements, and consider buying merchandise that says things like “Send it to Darrell,” before feeling even in-step with my loved ones when I realize that so many of us are doing the same. You? Me? Better than reality television? Grow up: public discourse like this dictates the lens through which we’ll be examining pop culture going forward. By simply participating in these conversations, we’re laying the groundwork for future university lectures, the direction of journalism, and what to expect from famous break-ups going forward. We’re changing the world! We’re sociologists!
Of course, we’re also huge gossips who’ve been in dire need of anything to talk about outside of who’s taking Ozempic and whether the world will end tomorrow. But who cares: our reality television darlings have held up their end of the bargain, and in response we must act accordingly. I’m not too good for unscripted soap operas and neither are you. Not when they might be saving us all from the chilling embrace of actual reality.
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