I have been thinking deeply about Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” lately. In my defense, the show broke its agreement with us — to not ever make its fans think too deeply — first. Like much of the internet and several of my group chats, it started with the off-camera reveal in March that veteran cast member and bartender turned lounge owner Tom Sandoval — he of the midlife crisis cover band and mustache — had been cheating on his partner of nine years, castmate and preternaturally chill peacemaker Ariana Madix, with her much younger “best friend” Raquel (née Rachel) Leviss, the pageant princess slash ex-fiancée of haunted Victorian doll-turned-DJ James Kennedy.
Far from a simple drunken hookup — the fuel that ran this show in its youth — Sandoval and Raquel carried on a full-blown secret love affair under the nose of Bravo’s production team (and, as the cast euphemistically refers to themselves as, “the friend group”) in the Valley Village house where his long-term girlfriend was grieving the deaths of her beloved grandmother and dog between trying to open her own business and to get Sandoval to stay sober long enough to fertilize her frozen eggs. Pass the Pumptinis, this is some bleak adult s**t!
It’s led to a riveting couple of months, between media coverage, Instagram stories and assorted trash-talking podcasts, all leading up to the season finale, filmed in the aftermath of Ariana discovering the affair, and the bonkers, weeks-long reunion show cycle currently underway. “He has victim-blamed me 100 percent of the way, so I don’t believe anything that just came out of his mouth, I think he’s f**king full of s**t, and he can f**k off,” Ariana fired back at Sandoval’s attempt to justify himself in part 1 of the reunion this week. Whew!
Things were much simpler back when disagreements could be hashed out over smoke breaks in the alley behind SUR, weren’t they? With cast members in their mid-to-late-30s and early 40s, they’re not exactly middle-aged, but neither are they the careless young adults of the show’s genesis. By turns, they have been hit hard by life, which we all know only gets harder. “Vanderpump Rules” has become relevant again because it stumbled into this realization the way we all eventually do: Slowly, then all at once when a crisis hits.
This is Wharton with spray tans, kinda. Austen through beer goggles?
A quick recap, for those who aren’t Andy Cohen devotées: “Vanderpump Rules,” which debuted in 2013, is a byproduct of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, featuring the younger, drunker strivers haunting the payroll of Bravo-lebrity and restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump’s SUR (obligatory acronym spell-out: Sexy Unique Restaurant). They arrived in West Hollywood at various times in the Aughts and Teens from places like Tampa or St. Louis with trunks full of teeth whitener and dreams. In the early seasons, they still went through the motions of their original aspirations between restaurant shifts: Going on auditions, modeling something somewhere, autotuning themselves to high heaven. They also drank so much it’s almost unbearable to watch in reruns, jockeyed for position at SUR and Lisa’s other properties, hooked up and broke up, and constantly fell out with one other over who said what to whom.
You might be tempted to dismiss a show built on party-hard gossip as flimsy, but there are some stakes here. You can be a villain on this kind of show, but you must be a villain with some social power, which means at least one or two close allies, or you risk being cast out, with nobody to film with. If you aren’t on the show, do you even exist? If you can control the narrative, you keep your position. This is Wharton with spray tans, kinda. Austen through beer goggles?
Often the gossip was about infidelity, suspected or witnessed, involving Miami Girl, That Girl in Vegas, Motorboating Some Guy’s Junk, the Golden Nugget swimming pool, or literally any storyline flowing through or around the volatile Kristen — she was later fired after a racist targeted campaign against a former castmate, and has a podcast now — and/or incorrigible scoundrel Jax, also exiled, also with a podcast. (It’s a lot of podcasts. What, are they going to get CPA licenses?) Occasionally, someone would get blackout drunk and start crying or screaming or getting even more belligerent. Some people were generally forgiven for chronic bad behavior and others weren’t.
And so it would be fair to ask why this particular infidelity has captured so much attention. This season has been the show’s most-watched, with the finale returning a series high in ratings, and I don’t think it’s all due to the mechanics of L’Affaire Scandoval itself. To sum it up, Sandoval and his mustache are gross, Ariana was done dirty, Raquel is way out of her depth, and these people throw around the words “best friend” a lot for not being in sixth grade. But there’s more to it than that.
A lot has happened on this show over its decade-long run, and also a whole lot of nothing. I began watching “Vanderpump Rules” during a particularly difficult summer. I needed a break from constant news, I was a little depressed, and I enjoyed observing a workplace more dysfunctional than mine at the time. One season could be sustained by two, maybe three pieces of gossip, rehashed tirelessly over many episodes, gaining just a tiny bit of forward momentum with each fight over who said what to whom. There was something of an operatic aria structure to it, a few words sustained across a whole lot of notes. The pace was as languid as a hangover Sunday. There was no way to fall behind or feel like you’d missed anything of substance.
There was something of an operatic aria structure to it, a few words sustained across a whole lot of notes.
I admit I have not been a faithful fan for the last few years, especially as the cast expanded. Scandoval lured me back, where I found the show had tightened around a small core, concentrating its gaze intently on longtime colleagues who are, for the most part, no longer so young, which has only made them more interesting, especially the women. And in revisiting some of those decade-long patterns as I watched every episode this season and all of Andy Cohen’s debriefings, I’ve come to a new realization: The show’s darkness has long been manifested in its framing of the other Tom — Sandoval’s bestie, former roomie and fellow SUR bartending alum, now current business partner Tom Schwartz — all along.
Enabled by the show, Schwartz spent years emotionally terrorizing Katie Maloney, his girlfriend and later wife, and even now that she is divorcing him, he can’t seem to stop. Portrayed by the show as the mostly harmless, even sensitive beta to Sandoval’s roguish hardass, the other Tom — Sandoval’s wasted wingman, his vault of toxic secrets — is at last aging out of the threadbare boyish charm years and emerging, finally, as the stealth villain of the show’s entire run.
Yes, this is reality TV, which we all understand to be manipulated and staged to some extent. As a fan, of course, all I can know is the show that’s on screen and playing out in the margins around it. But these are real people with real relationships, and, if I may be sentimental for a moment, I have to believe real love for each other — only people who love each other can hurt each other as they do. The Scandoval affair became public after filming ended and the season was pretty much set, but the show whiplashed back into production to capture a new finale and the emotional fallout of the discovery — I’m trying to make a Sandoval/coda portmanteau here, but it’s not working — and while the cast clearly prepped their rationales, alibis and zingers for maximum effect, after 10 years together, I think we all have a pretty good handle on the collective acting range. The reactions ring true. Ariana’s emotional finale confrontation was particularly, well, operatic, as she reduced Sandoval to a pile of rubble:
“We were friends when you were literally wearing combat boots and skinny jeans and didn’t have a dime to your name, driving a 1997 Honda Civic,” she said with alarming specificity. “I loved you then when you had nothing. You got a little bit of money, a little bar, a little band, and then this girl is gonna act enamored of you?”
Then she went in for the precision shot: “Cause that’s what you want — you want someone to just gas you up.”
Sandoval’s wasted wingman, his vault of toxic secrets, is at last aging out of the threadbare boyish charm years and emerging, finally, as the stealth villain of the show’s entire run.
A tale as old as time! Somehow amid Tom Sandoval’s cliché-fest midlife crisis, Schwartz has managed to make himself look pretty awful as well. Sandoval is rightfully catching the bulk of the ire for his shameless web of lies, but Schwartz’s feckless little rebellions are grotesque in their own way. How much he knew about Scandoval and when continues to be an issue as Schwartz’s story has shifted over time. And in the finale, he seemed more concerned with the reputation of the new bar they struggled to open, Schwartz & Sandy’s, than with the implosion of his friends’ lives. Call it an accomplishment: A man who got surprisingly far by pretending to be a soft puppy dog while viciously undermining his own wife is experiencing consequences as his weakness and misogyny finally come into focus for everyone else? As they say, this is 40.
If the professional stakes of alienating your friends have always been high on this show, the stakes seem even higher now as the cast ages. The strivers of SUR got later starts than your average Housewife and then took their time growing up. We have now watched them try for 10 seasons. Most left standing in the core group are approaching or in their 40s; they have marriages, divorces, pets, children. They own businesses, together and separately, that can live or die by their reputations. They have bought houses and moved out into two-bedroom apartments. Their built-up resentments and grudges are iceberg-deep, as mine currently are against Tom Schwartz.
Over 10 years, the show has painted Katie — herself a flawed person, as we all are, I am not here to “stan” anyone — as a demanding buzzkill and nag, primarily when she would insist on being seen as a human being with feelings, which Tom seemed to relish hurting. He would push on an emotional bruise then pull back with a who, me? smile, stick his fingers in his mouth and babytalk his way out of the doghouse. If Katie persisted in her grievance, she was the unreasonable one, the show suggested, the one who couldn’t let things go, the one with no chill. He spoke to her memorably with undisguised contempt, and for the most part, the show treated it like “Katie and Tom being the Bickersons.”
Culturally, we have long been trained to forgive bad behavior from a man, especially if he appears to be trying to be better.
There’s a scene in an earlier season that sums up this dynamic tidily: During a prank war, fake cops are called to a party to handcuff Sandoval as retribution for toilet-papering Jax’s house. Everyone falls for it. When the prank is revealed, the guys have a huge laugh, but Katie points out that as practical jokes go, it was in poor taste, insensitive given the climate around police and violence. “Turn on the news,” she said. This is a reasonable reaction for an adult to have! Schwartz, to whom she was very much married at the time, began haranguing her in front of everyone for it: “I have never been so turned off in my life,” he sneered. “This is why I don’t have sex with her.” In retrospect, it feels like a “throw the whole man in the trash” moment, but given the dynamic the show established early on, it barely registers as an event. Of course, there is much more to a marriage than what plays out for the cameras. Those public moments of contempt, though. I still struggle with understanding how the show — yes, even a Bravo-lebrity show — could breeze by it for so long.
It must be said this is not all Bravo’s fault: The show reflects what the cast puts out and what the audience picks up. We’re all soaking in the same sexist hot tub. It says just as much about the culture that shaped him that he has historically been a favorite of both the audience and Lisa Vanderpump, who has much invested in the Toms having elevated them to restaurant industry players. Schwartz’s own shaky relationship with fidelity and the truth, let alone his disregard for his partner’s feelings, never seemed to damage his reputation too much, likely because the victim was Katie, who could never be as chill about it as women are expected to be, especially when they are young. Culturally, we have long been trained to forgive bad behavior from a man, especially if he appears to be trying to be better. (Women can never be perceived as trying.) As Buzzfeed’s Lara Parker points out in this incisive rundown of Schwartz Sins, “He honestly seems to enjoy disrespecting women.” Again and again, the show gave Schwartz the benefit of the doubt as he did just that. I’m not saying that set the whole stage for the depths of Scandoval’s emotional depravity. But it certainly didn’t set a precedent that respecting your life partner was a core value, a hard line in the sand not to be crossed.
Katie finally left him after 12 years together. But even with split custody of their dogs, a shared workplace, and a pledge to “stay friends” (that keeps them both on the show), Divorced Tom has continued to antagonize her in some of the same old ways: Taking everyone else’s sides in disagreements, turning what should have been an amicable dinner into a put-down session, then shaming her for not forgiving him immediately. His coup de grâce this season was making out with Raquel on camera, in front of a whole preferred pool full of guests at castmate Scheana’s wedding, after being explicitly asked not to, and then acting injured when Katie stuck to her boundaries and ended their post-divorce friendship over it. Whether kissing Raquel was a diabolical cover to distract from his best friend’s affair, a nasty psyop against his ex, or just a routine, drunken lack of impulse control doesn’t really matter. A stand-up guy doesn’t make out with his ex’s co-worker—and at the office, no less, that they all share. It is the kind of childish selfishness most people grow out of when they realize their actions can hurt other people.
His coup de grâce this season was making out with Raquel on camera, in front of a whole preferred pool full of guests at castmate Scheana’s second wedding
A decent friend also wouldn’t buddy around with a friend’s ex accused of being — to use one of Schwartz’s favorite insults — a bootleg Harvey Weinstein. And yet Schwartz did just that with Lala Kent’s allegedly horrendous movie producer ex-partner Randall Emmett, after she told her colleagues they needed to pick a side as she went into a custody battle in the wake of the allegations against him, which is documented in the new Hulu documentary, “The Randall Scandal: Love, Loathing & Vanderpump.” Lala, it must be acknowledged, is a controversial character, as is James; good friends, they both play a sort of court jester role at times, tossing off their barbs and gossip together through the remnants of their own well-documented sexual chemistry, and their acid tongues and public outbursts are legendary. Which is also not a compelling reason to pal around with an ex whose exploits crossed him out of the recap section of the LA Times to the investigative unit. After Lala confronted Schwartz earlier in this season of “Pump Rules,” he complained about Lala’s ultimatum, mewling, “I just wanted to f**king play some pickleball, man.” Some contemplation and self-examination could have come from that moment, from a castmember with the depth to pull it off.
At the reunion, Lala pointed out that “Sandoval is Randall. Give it 10 years, he is Randall Emmett.” Water, or a Schwartz & Sandy’s cocktail, seeks its own level over time. Maybe it’s time for the TomTom Era to end. The show’s next chapter could be Something About Her instead. A recalibration for this show has been long overdue. Public opinion has rallied behind Ariana with impressive strength. (Though it remains a disturbing choice for Bravo to have brought Kristen back for the finale to soothe her, given the circumstances under which she left — the show’s overwhelming whiteness at work.) Perhaps future seasons could put more focus on the women figuring out how to thrive as they get older, wiser, and for some, more single before they settle back down, if they ever decide to do so. That story — women learning how to redefine themselves on their own terms — has been underexplored, and I suspect the appetite for it now is strong.
Because ultimately, they’re all too old for this s**t now. This season the women snapped into compelling focus, working to put their boundaries and priorities in order, even as they all struggle through the curveballs adult life throws at everyone, to record ratings and fan approval. Except Raquel, who couldn’t seem to grasp the concept that the histories Sandoval and Schwartz share with Ariana and Katie have deeper roots than little crushes that ran their course. If only she had met them all 10 years ago. Give her 10 more years and maybe she’ll understand. In the meantime, there’s always room in exile for yet another podcast.
about reality TV