It’s been a long season for viewers of Vanderpump. I’d normally summarize events up top, but I’m at a loss for what exactly happened. Did they do a Pride episode? Was there even a cast trip? Was Jax and Brittany’s wedding this season or the last one? Questions with easily-found answers, but I’m at a deficit of motivation to even go looking. I’ve changed, this show has changed, and now I find myself on the other side of a large, uncrossable chasm, wondering if I’ll ever find the bridge back to the joy it used to bring me.
Normally, I’d say it was just me. I’ve seen thousands of episodes of Bravo’s vast reality television offerings. Fifteen years of my life have been spent glued to the screen, watching various flavors of Scheana and Stassi Schroeder bicker. For a while, Vanderpump Rules broke away from the overarching same-ness of Bravo’s twilight years. But if the recent season was any indicator, it won’t hold out much longer. Conflicted, I chatted with fellow Bravo scholar Clover Hope on what the hell happened, where we both stand with Vanderpump Rules, and where it should go from here.
Clover: I’ll confess, I’ve been checked out from this show the entire season, mostly watching it in the background hoping something, anything will spark joy. The new cast members feel mostly like outlines of characters, with no interesting streaks of evil. Everyone used to be a monster in a beautiful way, and while I love a good reality television image rehab, my gripe with Bravo continues to be that they don’t acknowledge that their cast is now famous and that their fame is no longer new. It’s stupid, dead, and depressing for all the wrong reasons! Outside of Scheana being Scheana, did anything actually happen? Not enough of her. Not enough of Rachel’s baby-voiced enabling. Also, Jax was hot?? I feel like Lexi in the “Splat!” episode of Sex and the City: “New York is over… Whatever happened to fun?!”
Joan: I was asking my husband this last night after the credits rolled: Did they even take a vacation this season that wasn’t Jax’s wedding? Or am I superimposing previous seasons onto this one? Anyway, I completely agree. I wrote about this in my assessment of the premiere: Bravo is hindered by archaic rules about what the “Housewives” (and their affiliates) should look like. One of the most magnetic storylines to happen on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in YEARS is the promise that each of the cast will step through the fourth wall later in the season when Denise Richards finds herself in the boiling pot. Already, the most thrilling moments of any Real Housewives of New York episode is when they show off Page Six blurbs about themselves—the same goes for RHOBH. The charade has been over for far longer than Vanderpump Rules seems willing to admit. I mean, there’s a literal convention for these people. The pretense about their “humble lives” and “part-time waitressing jobs” feels like a Marvel movie pretending to be an independent student film.
Clover: Yes! I feel like The Real Housewives of Atlanta would be complete shit if they didn’t dive into the drama that happens when they’re not filming. Show us the Kristen tweets! And have the original cast talk about adjusting to a world without actual bartending. It’s why I think Scheana, who is as chillingly desperate as she was in Season 1, has been the anchor of the season and the only remnant of what good-Vanderpump used to look like. It’s also why I kind of, unfortunately, am interested in Jax’s arc and the fact that he’s grappling with the simple fact of… trying to be a decent person. Seeing him stumble to avoid basic things like cheating and lying and having all-out warfare with himself over it, I have to admit, is “nice” compared to watching these new cast members… I don’t know, stare and pretend to be mean? I don’t even remember their names.
Joan: I feel like I have a different read on Jax, but we’re coming at it from the same place. He drops the farce in last night’s episode and tells Lisa “This is more than just a television show. These are my real friends.” Watching her immediately retaliate to that—we already know how Lisa treads the line between reality television and friendship quite well—reminded me how stuck in the past this show feels. I think Jax is definitely struggling to cope with the idea that his life will not look like this forever. But it also feels like he’s wrestling with something more cosmic. The boundaries of this fictional universe he now inhabits, maybe?
On the same note, however, I really appreciate getting to watch James’s sober plotline. I don’t “like” James, necessarily. But as someone who was raised, rather intimately, with alcoholism, I have an unyielding investment in his recovery. I know what those wounds look like. The scene with his mom was, surprisingly, the best part of the season! That’s what growth (hopefully) looks like, and that’s the direction I’d like to see cast members like him grow into. How long that lasts, and if the show can survive on it? I’m not sure. They definitely cannot survive on the new cast members, besides Charli maybe, who’s patently untrue “hot girl dumbness” was thrilling. I love her put-upon personality immensely. Racist Max and the other one, the lanky YouTuber who pretend fucked Scheana? They’re a complete snooze. As is Dayna! I mean, there’s nothing I want to watch less than a stand-up comedian announce that the man who is very much not interested in her is actually very interested in her, he just “doesn’t know how to say it.” Girl, get a grip!
Clover: The portrayal of James does feel the most honest to me. He was okay with being a dirtbag for so long (and still is in many ways), but you can tell he’s actually trying to resolve decades-long demons. I would be surprised if they kept most of the new cast members because I’ve got to believe Andy Cohen and the powers that be at Bravo recognize their dullness. I suspect they’ll retain Charli as a friend of the cast and probably Dayna, who has some drama potential but seems almost too serious for the show. Or rather, too self-aware. The thing that made Vanderpump truly Shakespearean was the self-awareness deficit among the cast and with each other as friends, with the exception of Stassi, who was consciously proud of her role as a goblin in earlier seasons. I do love to see her blossoming out of that with Beau, who’s a darling, but again it’s not as satisfying to watch without the friendship tension. I guess the competition over who had the better new same-looking house was the closest we got to exploring their off-show lives.
The end of last night’s finale seemed to hint at a broader separation—there’s a moment when Jax and Tom Sandoval basically initiate a friendship separation agreement. I kept wondering if these people even still hang out with each other, which is maybe just a mark of all the Bravo shows that evolve into business transactions.
Joan: I love our contrast in reads since I take a more cynical approach to Beau. Sure, he’s darling, but we all saw that acting reel, Clover! This job was the perfect get for him. (His love, or fear, of Stassi seems genuine, however. Good for them!) You actually bring up a point I’ve been grappling with for some time: self-awareness in the current age of reality television. With the popularity of the show and the success of castmates like Stassi, there’s an instant appeal for prospective cast members looking to make it big in Los Angeles when acting doesn’t seem a viable pursuit. Just look at how many of the original cast are failed actors! Which depends on your definitions of both acting and reality television, I guess. There’s no way to turn off the spigot of fame that’s leaked all over West Hollywood. New cast members seem thirsty because they are.
On something like The Real Housewives, this thirst is often a pleasure to witness, because the boundaries of the show are less strict. But on Vanderpump Rules, where the limitations are explicitly defined by their relationships to Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant empire—how do you explain away someone like Lala? I mentioned this also in my earlier assessment, and it proved true this season. Even Lala feels like a side character these days! I mean, having her “volunteer” at VPR because she has a private jet and can’t pretend to be a waitress anymore is boring. It’s a boring choice! And yet they seem firm in it. She was even at the Vanderpump Dogs photoshoot for The Hollywood Reporter! It’s laughable. Anyway, speaking of houses, did you see Stassi’s new house? I’m excited to see how many glitter-encrusted fur throw pillows she fills it with. (Although, whoever convinced her she was above a strip-mall facing condo in the San Fernando Valley—which she claimed in last night’s episode—was lying.) But Clover, do you really think we can stomach an entire season about pool parties and decorating their pre-fab farmhouses? I don’t think we can!
Clover: I definitely can’t make it through another season if they don’t switch up the format a bit. Even Ariana is boring. They don’t let Kristen be the self-destructive brat she wants to be, and Tom Schwartz’s dummy act gets sadder and sadder every second. (I remember being delighted during a previous season at a Stassi birthday party when he pronounced the word “macabre” correctly.) What do they do? What do they fight about off the show? Anyway, I hadn’t seen that Stassi got a new home, but it looks humongous, and I bet they’ll do some big housewarming episode next season where she talks about investing in furniture. I don’t know what the next era of Vanderpump Rules looks like, but I dream of them going deeper into the real psychological clashes that exist among these Hollywood friends who must naturally grow apart, instead of being content to deliver what is essentially a restaurant sitcom. Andy, please save us from this misery. Maybe the production hiatus will give producers time to hone the next iteration.
Joan: It really does feel like Vanderpump Rules needs to grow beyond the need for Lisa Vanderpump. I keep hearing the echo of her words to Jax last night: “This is my show.” Her insistence on that is holding these former freaks and layabouts back from achieving what they’re clearly capable of—reality television greatness. But then, is it that the boundaries of the show are making them boring, or are they just boring people? I feel like it’s the former, but who knows anymore! Even Sandoval’s narcissism and Scheana’s sex mania can’t keep me hanging on for much longer. I’d never wish any could be born into a marriage like Jax and Brittany’s, but maybe parenthood is the necessary step for the cast. Raising children changes you! And these people need a change, desperately.