Reality TV gets a bad rap among the cognoscenti, and with good reason: There’s nothing on Bravo as enduring or culturally significant as Breaking Bad or Mad Men, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. But for those of us who can actually differentiate between the respective casts of Real Housewives of Miami and Real Housewives of New Jersey, the flavors of high-gloss, low-grade docudramas vary dramatically in how smoothly they go down.
This winter, the clear victor in the reality TV olympics was Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, which airs its Season 2 finale on Feb. 3. Vanderpump premiered in 2013 as a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, following the professional life of that show’s de facto star, Lisa Vanderpump, a flamboyant English restaurateur who operates the Hollywood eatery SUR. (You have to spell SUR like that, in all caps, because it’s not just an exotic French word — it’s also an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant. Yes, really.)
The focus of the show is less on Vanderpump, though, and more on her waitstaff, so it’s more or less a reality show about hot, dumb waiters at an overpriced tuna tartare trough, who say things like, “The servers at other Hollywood restaurants just want to be waiters at SUR,” and occasionally, about each other, “I am going to crucify her. I will destroy her life.” Gulp.
Although they’re all servers and bartenders by day, everyone in the cast has obvious aspirations of real stardom; they’re would-be actors tasked with playing distorted, high-drama versions of themselves. It’s not clear what kind of celebrity mean girl Stassi Schroeder envisioned herself becoming, but her on-again off-again flame Jax Taylor — an aging meathead with a sweetly dopey mien — is an occasional model, as is the deeply unlikable Kristen Doute, whose boyfriend, Tom Sandoval, is an aspiring musician. Scheana Marie tries valiantly to use her new platform of reality stardom to launch a career as a dance artist, which goes about as well as you’d expect. Mostly, they bum around Los Angeles sleeping with each other’s partners, drinking too much and squabbling endlessly, but at the end of the day, they’re all just lost kids with failed dreams who work in the service industry and happen to be trailed by a production crew.
Like most reality shows, it’s an outgrowth of that dizzyingly modern problem — the idea that young people just want to be famous, for any reason. (A widely cited 2012 study showed that children age 10-12 value fame above all else, including financial success and achievement.) For those without talent, reality television is a shortcut to celebrity, and what makes it so worth watching is the pathos of that hunger — people willing to put their lives on camera to be ridiculed and gawked at by others because they’re so desperate to become celebrities.
But as the Real Housewives and Kardashians of the world become more famous, they grow cannier about their public personae, more concerned with their brands and endorsements; consequently, they are less fun to watch. At the Vanderpump stage in the fame life cycle, where the cast has a platform (a TV show) but aren’t yet experienced enough to know how to self-censor, all that hedonistic drama makes for spectacular viewing.
That’s probably why Vanderpump has outdone most of its contemporaries in the expansive category of docudramas about the petty problems of attractive people. Stassi Schroeder is a magnificently compelling villainess, as starkly cruel as any great onscreen antagonist, but in a few years — once she’s parlayed her demi-celebrity into a wine-of-the-month club and a gig as a red-carpet correspondent — she’ll have to dial it down. She can only get away with violently assaulting her former best friend Kristen (for sleeping with her ex-boyfriend Jax — twice!) because she has nothing to lose.
To wit, the show’s ratings have climbed with each episode all season long. This week, Vanderpump for the first time eclipsed its lead-in, Bravo’s flagship (and best) crew of white-wine-hurling frauen, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It notched 1.2 million viewers in the key advertiser audience of adults 18-49, just ahead of Housewives‘ 1.15 million. But that comes as no surprise, given that the women of Housewives aren’t as crazy as they once were, too concerned with promoting their apparel lines and philanthropy to get their hands dirty with the drama.
For now, Vanderpump Rules is in its prime, all glorious hate-watching catnip — nasty, brutish and decadently trashy. Enjoy it before the cast spoils the fun by getting the fame they always wanted.