American Psychos: On “Vanderpump Rules”

Philippa Snow examines the anti-heroism offered by Bravo’s reality show “Vanderpump Rules.”

American Psychos: On “Vanderpump Rules”

IF, LIKE ME, you belong to the very select group of people who are fans of both the reality show Vanderpump Rules (2013– ) and the work of the surrealist auteur David Lynch, it will doubtless have occurred to you that there are certain similarities between the season two finale of Vanderpump and the season two finale of another equally bizarre, equally all-American show: one just as fond of blending soap-operatic melodrama with bursts of strange violence; stilted delivery and inauthentic tears with visceral screams; signature foods and beverages—coffee, doughnuts, goat cheese balls, whatever a “Pumptini” is—with the bitter taste of human suffering. I am talking, of course, about Twin Peaks (1990–91, 2017), and more specifically about the famous scene in which the dashing and Boy-Scoutish Agent Dale Cooper is possessed by BOB (Frank Silva), a demon broadly representative of evil. Cooper, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Kyle MacLachlan, stands dressed in blue pajamas at the sink, behaving strangely: slowly and methodically, he squeezes out the toothpaste from its tube, adopting a look of such intense and startling concentration that eventually this look begins to curdle into mania.

Suddenly, Cooper snaps, smashing his forehead against the mirror above the basin until it is spiderwebbed with cracks. The reflection in the glass is BOB’s, not his, and when he turns his bloodied face back to the camera, Cooper has a very different vibe. “How’s Annie?” he snickers, referencing another character from the show. “How’s Annie? How’s Annie?” The voice is mocking, not quite his. It suggests a disconnection from the ties that bind a rational, right-thinking person to the rational, right-thinking world, and this disconnection is exactly what BOB brings about in those he possesses. In the body of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise)—father of the mysterious dead girl, Laura (Sheryl Lee), who lies at the center of Twin Peaks—that disconnection led to incest, then to murder; one of the cleverest things about the show is the way it never appears to decide whether BOB is so powerfully supernatural that he makes a helpless vessel of his hosts, or whether he is unleashing something latent in them. BOB may be a demon, but he may also be something like the id, and more specifically, the id untethered from its brothers—darkness visible, venality unleashed, atavistic cruelty unchecked by reason and morality.

On the subject of venality unleashed and darkness visible, consider: in the last episode of the second season of Vanderpump Rules, there is a fight scene between Jax Taylor, a sociopathic orange bartender, and Tom Sandoval, another orange bartender, over Kristen Doute, an eccentric shit-stirrer whom both of them have slept with. Tom, losing his cool, strikes Jax’s face, and like Agent Cooper, Jax turns straight towards the camera and unleashes a profoundly unsettling smile, blood splattering his grin like war paint—there is an immediate sense that something sinister has taken over, but no implication that this influence originates from any place more supernatural than Jax’s brain. In drawing attention to the similarities between these two iconic televisual moments, I am not trying to imply that Jax—who is mostly just an entertaining asshole—is anywhere near as bad as the incestuous murderer Leland Palmer, or as bad as Agent Cooper will eventually become in season three, when he, too, adopts an orange tan and begins using an excess of hair gel in order to telegraph his badness. Rather, what I mean to say is that Jax Taylor, with his perpetual ability to act on not just impulse but the absolute worst impulses a human man can have, proves that a person does not need to be possessed in order to be ruled completely by their id.

For those not familiar with the Vanderpump universe, a précis: Lisa Vanderpump, a cishet female drag queen who was at one time a castmate on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, co-owns several restaurants with her doting, red-faced husband Ken Todd. The best-known of these, SUR, is the focus of the show. (“SUR” being an acronym for “Sexy Unique Restaurant” is the one thing even those who have not seen Vanderpump Rules usually know about the series, and it makes sense, largely because “Sexy Unique Restaurant” is the funniest restaurant name in human history.) Her “rules,” as evidenced by the goings-on of the cast, are hardly draconian, and it takes a lot of bad behavior to get fired. There have been occasional rotations in the staff, but up until a few deeply unpleasant scandals in more recent years, the core lineup remained mostly unchanged for the show’s decade-plus run: Stassi Schroeder, a blonde with the wide eyes of a Kewpie doll and the personality of Hannibal Lecter; Kristen Doute, Stassi’s on-and-off friend and sometime sexual rival; the Toms, Schwartz and Sandoval, who are apparently not lovers but nevertheless maintain what often feels like the most stable marriage on the show; Ariana Madix, who spent most of the show dating Tom Sandoval in spite of seeming far too smart for him; Katie Maloney, who once fell 25 feet through an apparently faulty skylight, and whose subsequent PTSD-induced outbursts at her then-husband, Tom Schwartz, were often mischaracterized as a bad case of “being a bitch”; Scheana Shay, a tone-deaf aspiring pop star who is visibly aroused by the sight of a man wall-mounting a television in “under seven minutes”; Jax Taylor, the show’s self-described “number one guy”; James Kennedy, a very funny full-time jerk and part-time DJ who describes himself as the “white Kanye West”; and LaLa Kent, née Lauren Burningham, a white woman who frequently talks about her “hood” credentials even though she is from Utah. Later additions included Raquel Leviss, a secretly monstrous former beauty queen who was at one point engaged to James, and Brittany Cartwright, Jax’s magnificently passive-aggressive Southern wife.

“American reality television has a near-pathological focus on success,” the brilliant pop-cultural critic Naomi Fry once argued, in a foundational 2016 text about Vanderpump Rules that appeared in The New York Times. But “the experience of life that the show exemplifies—a miasmic forever-present where not a whole lot happens and the pressures of achievement appear mostly absent—parallels a utopian, even resistant, impulse in me,” she continues. “The familiar reality-show arc of development has been traded for a ‘Simpsons’-like freezing of time, in which the characters never change.” When I first began watching the show, I assumed this soothing stasis was the thing I most enjoyed about slipping into the world of Vanderpump for two or three hours at a time. Yes, the servers sometimes started T-shirt businesses, or produced memoirs that one had to guess were typeset in forgivingly large fonts, but ultimately they still spent their time sloppily kissing or horribly screaming in an unglamorous car park, partner-swapping and endlessly reigniting pointless feuds, getting drunk and getting high and falling over, and generally acting like high schoolers if those high schoolers had been abandoned on a desert island with an industrial volume of hard liquor and no authority figures whatsoever.

Watch enough of Vanderpump Rules, though, and things get weird—surreal, almost, in their lawlessness. Even by the standards of reality television, this show features an objectively insane collection of plot points, and eventually even the most hardened fan of the genre may begin to feel a little nuts as Stassi gushes about her serial killer fandom, James screams at LaLa about pasta with the urgent fury of a CIA man interrogating an active terrorist, Jax dumps his girlfriend immediately after going to an AA meeting with her, Ariana and LaLa allegedly fuck in the back seat of a moving sports car, and Jax—Jax again!—sucks somebody’s toes near the bed of a 95-year-old woman in a hospice. This list, if you can believe it, barely manages to scratch the surface of the series’ abject madness, which also encompasses one character’s use of an adult baby bottle, another character’s use of a live dog as a handkerchief during a wedding ceremony, and an episode in which the phrase “50 gay mayors” is said—as far as I remember it, although I did not keep a tally—roughly 20,000 times.

If there is a static quality to Vanderpump Rules, in other words, it might be said to stem from the shared temperament of its cast members as much as it does from their unchanging careers and styles and homes, and that shared temperament is perfectly metonymized by the feral look on Jax’s face when he is bloodied in that fight scene. Almost all reality stars, especially villains, radiate a certain level of desperation owing to the very nature of their fame, which is mercurial and deeply personal, and has far less to do with talent than it does with an intrinsic suitedness to being on camera. Playing oneself is famously more challenging than nonactors imagine it to be. Playing oneself without attempting to seem likable at all must, given most people’s innate and understandable desire to be liked (or, if not liked, admired), be harder still. In this sense, a knack for reality television is almost an evolutionary trait, an adaptation that mirrors that of a jaguar for the Amazon, or a lion for the savanna. One has only to look at the way Vanderpump Rules gradually sidelined SUR’s manager Peter Madrigal, a quiet and unbothered man who looked like a swole Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator, to see that this is survival of the fittest, with “the fittest” being the loudest, the least sane, the rudest and the cruelest and the horniest—the most animal, effectively, and accordingly the freest. The core cast of Vanderpump remains the same just as a leopard does not change its spots, or a scorpion, per the fable, cannot help but sting the frog that carries it across the river, even if doing so means drowning.

If on some reality shows scheming and strategizing rule, here, by contrast, nearly every plot development is driven by a total lack of foresight, and a tendency towards selfishness and lust. The “rules” of the series title bear a far closer resemblance to the law of the jungle than they do to the rules of polite society, to say nothing of the actual judicial system. In the Smiths song “Ask,” there is an entirely perfect lyric I have always loved: “Nature is a language, can’t you read?” Can Jax Taylor read? I would not like to say for certain. What I can say is that he reads the animal fluently—he pursues his goals with a dogged single-mindedness, and if the results are sometimes ugly, they are also fascinating, and they make for great TV. In prestige television—in the aforementioned Twin Peaks, say, or in The Sopranos (1999–2007)—a character like this would once have been seen to stand in for something larger than himself, like the corrupting nature of money, or the rot at the heart of the American dream, or even the danger of ingesting too many “steroid-adjacent supplements.” Now, as the televisual antihero slips inexorably out of fashion in fictional TV in lieu of more feel-good fare, Vanderpump Rules survives as a bastion of supposedly “real” anti-heroism. It rejects the famous Seinfeldian “no hugging, no learning” rule, but only on the technicality that a hug is a terrific way to get your knife closer to someone else’s back.

When Jax was ejected from the show before season nine began filming for being not just bad but awful, it seemed at first as though Vanderpump might suffer. Happily, it was not all that long until a challenger appeared: ostensible nice-girl Raquel, formerly engaged to James, was revealed at the end of season 10 to have been sleeping with Tom Sandoval behind his girlfriend Ariana’s back. Evolution, sensing a need for a new apex predator, had done its work, and there was something humorously au courant about the new “number one guy” and primary villain being a girl. The “Scandoval,” as it quickly became known, gave the series back some much-needed vitality after a long, tiring stretch of humdrum episodes. At the obligatory end-of-show reunion, more insults were hurled than ever, and because Raquel had taken out a restraining order against Scheana after she had allegedly thrown an off-screen punch, it also had to be conducted in a new and loony format, with the two only ever able to appear onscreen one at a time.

As the internet exploded into furious debate about whether Raquel was a) a fool, b) a sociopath, or c) a strategic reality TV genius, it occurred to me what a great character she was, like something out of Mary Gaitskill or Ottessa Moshfegh: a nominally wide-eyed small-town beauty queen whose ultra-passive affect masked a chilly aptitude for boundless cruelty. I thought, too, about what Lady Macbeth said about “th’innocent flower,” and about how happy we are to hear the same stories told over and over again—how much we love a natural villain. Most of us go through life hamstrung by things like “morality” and “social decency” and “an awareness of how we’re perceived by others,” and on balance this is absolutely for the best. The cast members of Vanderpump Rules, fortunately for us, do not suffer from the same affliction, and so it makes sense that we love to live through them vicariously. How electrifying it must feel sometimes to be that horrible, and that stupid—how dazzling it must feel to let yourself abandon all good sense and kindness, like innocent Agent Cooper giving himself over to a dark-eyed demon, to ensure these are the best days of your life, even if they end up being the very worst of someone else’s.

LARB Contributor

Philippa Snow is a critic and essayist. Her work has appeared in publications including Artforum, Los Angeles Review of BooksArtReviewFriezeThe White ReviewVogueThe NationThe New Statesman, and The New Republic. She was short-listed for the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and her first book, Which as You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment, is out now with Repeater. Her next book, Trophy Lives: On the Celebrity as an Art Object, is out in March with MACK.


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