By Anne T. Donahue
This week, we were returned to the chaotic lives of our favourite former bartenders. Vanderpump Rules premiered its 11th season, and with it came the emergence of Scandoval aftermath, group in-fighting, and the ways in which our precious cast has reckoned with being Actual News.
Last winter, I couldn’t wait. Scandoval – in which Tom Sandoval cheated on his long-time partner and castmate, Ariana Matix, with fellow (former) castmate, Raquel Leviss – had changed the trajectory of reality television forever. In real time, we were updated via social media and TMZ about the fallout from the illicit affair and witnessed the changing nature of cast and producer relationships. This event was unparalleled. By the season finale, the fourth wall had been broken; the cast, while always aware that they were on a TV show, had made the TV show itself (and all of us watching) an additional character. Who knew? Who didn’t? Had the evidence always been there? Why hadn’t we noticed? These were the questions I believed in my soul I would be asking for the rest of my life.
And then came Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Without ruining anything, allow me to summarize: Scandoval who?
Where the Sandoval Affair had created villains we could unpack in real time, SLC was a reality reckoning. Along with its cast, we learned of a traitor. And then, in the season’s final minutes, that traitor was unveiled to their co-stars as they collectively pieced together her plot along with the rest of us. Receipts! Timelines! Screenshots! Fucking everything! A cast member had bamboozled us all – including production, or so we’ve been told – and the integrity of the Real Housewives format was forever compromised. No wonder I like The Traitors so much.
What we want from reality television has changed, and the last few months have built upon this. After Vanderpump wrapped and the zeitgeist slipped from its fingers, The Traitors and Salt Lake seeped in to capitalize on our newfound need to be shocked, appalled, or a combination of the two. The Traitors is our chance to play a game we claim we’d excel at (navigating reality television), while Salt Lake proved our inability to actually do it. We couldn’t sniff out the traitor, and we fucking loved it. Sitting here, I have no idea who’s getting killed off Traitors next and I’m living for the reveal on Thursday. We want to be included, sure, but we want to be surprised. Considering Bravo now knows this, the possibilities of where its franchises go next are endless.
But I’m worried Vanderpump’s been left behind.
This week, the season premiere delivered the expected: Tom and Ariana navigating their still-shared home, Lala’s custody battle with ex-husband [the worst man who’s ever lived and whom I refuse to name], and the cast navigating their tabloid permanence. We’re not pretending to watch a group of friends “try to make it” in L.A. anymore. We’re watching famous people figure out what it means to be more famous. What can possibly surprise us now?
Vanderpump has an opportunity to rise above what it once used to be by becoming a show about a show; by picking up where the series finale of The Hills left off (like you can forget). We know Tom Schwartz and Tom Sandoval are being harassed at work because of their Scandoval guilt, but instead of bogging us down with details of life at the bar (nobody cares!), why not give us what we really want: two 40-year-old men reconciling with a life of reality TV star gigs that bring in money but destroy one’s soul? (See: Schwartz in space.) We’re already here, and the illusion is over: why not commit to showing us what happens when we pay too much attention?
If this sounds too meta, I don’t care – Salt Lake changed everything, and now my standards are sky-high. Plus, Vanderpump has parlayed into a story about what L.A. really is: a land of promise and hopes and dreams, underscored by opportunities that bring fame, but are likely a far cry from the life any star of that show wanted to lead. Why not show us the slog of waking up, getting glam, and then having to share scenes with people you didn’t like five years ago let alone now? Why not show cast members negotiating their contracts, pivoting to podcasting, and asking Jax if he’s okay, like actually okay because the preview of his new show infers he is not. Why not commit to pulling the curtain back and casting reality TV as a permanent cast member, and not just a friend of the show? Vanderpump has always been a television experiment. Now it can be a social one.
I just ask, for the love of all that is good, that Lala not call Raquel on-camera anymore. 2023 is behind us, and I don’t have it in me to send anything to Darrell.
Need a little more Anne? Read more from Anne T. Donahue right here! (If you need more Vanderpump check out: What Can We Learn From Season 10 Of Vanderpump Rules? or One Vanderpump To Rule Us All )