In 2016, Pulitzer Prize winning critic Emily Nussbaum described watching Vanderpump Rules as “less like watching TV than like becoming a sports fan,” which has never felt more true.
You proudly don your Something About Her merch. You screech over Lisa Vanderp-ump’s bad calls (“You’re not a bad person, Tom”!?). You watch in nail-biting anticipation as the extra innings drag on and on and on through Peacock’s extended, uncensored three-part reunion. You are dedicated to the flawed feminist queen, #TeamAriana, more than you ever have been before, and you gleam with superiority as your friends—who you’ve been begging to watch with you since 2013—scramble to catch up on the past 9 seasons.
You are finally the #1 guy in this group. You know everything there is to know about #Scandoval.
In the wake of an event producers have literally likened to the shooting of John F. Kennedy, Real Housewife of Beverely Hills Lisa Vanderpump’s spinoff show has suddenly catapulted itself into the zeitgeist on a level akin with reality TV’s first family, the Kardashians.
For withered and wrinkled viewers, #Scandoval has been a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, interactive moment in television history. For innocent bystanders, it’s an annoying earworm, inexplicably making international headlines as far as the White House. For Andy Cohen and co., it’s been a “producer’s dream.” With record ratings for both the show and its network, Bravo, the cheating scandal between longtime Vanderpump Rules principals Tom Sandoval, Ariana Madix, and Raquel Leviss has definitively changed the future of reality television production as producers inevitably scramble to recreate the impossible.
How did we get here?
If you’re reading this, you probably know how we got here: “guys” night (or maybe Coachella—jury’s still out on that one). But if we take a step back from the actual #Scandoval timeline, it seems almost impossible that Vanderpump Rules is currently the most watched cable series of 2023, and the fastest growing unscripted series of the last year on broadcast or cable.
Even avid fans admit the show had been waning for several seasons now, as unsuccessful attempts to force storylines, insert new characters, and fire former principals in a slapdash attempt at wokeness (undermined entirely by the fact that rumors are swirling about the return of Jax Taylor and Brittany Cartwright, who were fired, amongst others, for blatant racism against another cast member) dragged viewership down. Now, the completed 10th season has closed out with a gobsmacking 11.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched season ever.
The finale itself brought a series high of 4.1 million viewers across platforms, only to be eclipsed a week later with the first part of the reunion reaching 4.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched episode of any Bravo show in 9 years. (As a point of comparison: the highest episode of Keeping Up With the Kardahians was in 2010 with 4.8 million viewers, and the 2022 Emmy’s had 5.9 million viewers.) This is a feat especially notable in our current television landscape fractured by streaming wars. And speaking of Peacock, the third reunion episode became the best first-day viewership of any NBCU series on the platform.
All this to say: high fucking numbers.
When news of Tom and Ariana’s breakup first hit TMZ in early March, four episodes of season 10 had already premiered, and were doing well as sufficient storylines carried ratings (Schwartz and Katie’s divorce, mostly). The rest became entirely #Scandoval fueled—thanks in no small part to the scorned woman herself.
Why did we get here?
Season 10 of Vanderpump Rules wrapped production in early September, 2022. Ariana discovered Tom and Raquel’s relationship via his phone on March 1st, 2023. On March 2nd, she called the producers to let them know what was happening. On March 3rd, the cameras turned back on to film what would become the new season finale.
Call it commitment, call it fame-hungry, call it whatever you want—it was a genius move on Ariana’s part. If you take away the absolute emotional wreckage of discovering your partner of nine years has been having a months-long affair with one of your best friends, Madix has been making bank off #Scandoval. As fans scrambled to support the heartbroken Vanderpump hero, merch for her and fellow cast member Katie Maloney’s still-unopened sandwich shop, Something About Her, flew off the digital shelves. They reportedly made $200,000 as of the reunion filming in March, with half of that coming from the first 12 hours the shop was live. (My favorite, released the day after the third reunion episode, is a direct response to one of Sandoval’s most offensive comments about their relationship, in which he berated her for wearing a t-shirt during sex.) She’s also made commercial deals with Lays, SoFi, Duracell (another dig at Tom), got a Glamour magazine cover, and snagged a role in an upcoming Lifetime movie.
And while Madix herself claimed to “not love” picking the cameras back up March 3rd in her Los Angeles Times interview, it’s important to remember that Vanderpump Rules, at its core, is a show about people trying to get famous. Though far removed from where they began 10 years ago, the original premise was a group of struggling LA models/actors/singers/famemongerers working at Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant as they attempted to pursue their dreams. Ariana has always been one of the more likable/least terrible characters, and certainly never as desperate for fame as wannabe-Pete-Wentz Tom Sandoval, but she did have dreams of acting. Early seasons showed a since-lost commitment to comedy and improv. Sure, reality TV-stardom came with the success of Vanderpump, but nothing like the attention (and money) she’s getting now.
Meanwhile, Tom Sandoval and the Most Extras (yikes) are butchering “Stacy’s Mom” to crowds half-filled with #TeamAriana fans there solely to mock. It’s nice to see Ariana doing well as a “fuck you” to her worm-with-a-mustache-ex, but it’s hard to believe she didn’t know exactly what she was doing in terms of her own career when she picked up the phone to call executive producer Alex Baskin on March 2nd.
Where do we go from here?
Picking up production five and a half months after it’s stopped is no small feat, especially to do so at the speed Vanderpump achieved. In an interview with Variety about the importance of filming this “critical moment,” Baskin credits Bravo for pulling available crew members from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which was already in production at the same time.
The gut-wrenching showdown between Ariana and Tom in the season 10 finale, Baskin claims, was essentially the first time the two had spoken since she’d found out about the affair two days prior. And it shows. Capturing that unscripted emotion plays a huge role in what makes this compelling television. Vanderpump Rules injected a jarring dose of reality back into reality TV this season, and it’s hard to imagine how other shows will keep up.
Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine how even VPR will keep up. To many, the penultimate episode felt like a potential series closer had #Scandoval not hit. Practically the entire cast has vowed to distance themselves from Sandoval (even his other TomTom half, BFF and human-mozzarella-stick Tom Schwartz). Lisa Vanderpump has wildly outgrown her usefulness in all their lives (hot take, I know—but news of her getting another reality spinoff picked up by Hulu doesn’t feel like a coincidence), and there’s absolutely no way DJ James Kennedy can last as top dog unless he suddenly decides to become a little more true to himself. We all know what I’m talking about.
So where does the cast go from here? Tom and Raquel will inevitably return because a paycheck’s a paycheck, and the cast will be forced into scenes with them. It will be awkward and likely grow stale as friendships ping-pong around them. Hopefully Lala will be able to talk more about her own toxic relationship with Hollywood Executive Shitball Randall Emmett, but if she’s still tied up in the courts system, probably not. Katie and Schwartz are at their natural conclusion, and even if Bravo does bring back the infamous Jax Taylor, he’ll be missing his devious counterpart in Stassi. Let’s be real: he’s a dad hocking merch on Instagram now. He won’t bring anything close to the level of hospice-fucking drama he used to.
So while it seems doubtful Vanderpump Rules has more than a handful of seasons left to live, you can hardly blame them. It’s not possible to come down from a high like #Scandoval without crashing in the process, though producers will certainly try.
Networks will work into contracts that crews are expected to be on call year-round. Influencers vying for reality-stardom will look at Ariana and find inspiration: document yourself 24/7, heighten the trauma, and success is sure to follow. Attempts to create more authentic “moments” that shock and titillate viewers will be tenfold (and I’m sure Kris Jenner is already trying to figure out how to apply this tactic to the Kardashian narrative)—but none will succeed.
#Scandoval wasn’t an orchestrated moment of TV-magic for instant gratification. It was 10 years worth of (mostly) real-life SURvers creating personas, crafting storylines, and trying to get famous. Then a mid-life crisis got out of hand, got caught at the right moment, and real-life feelings got hurt as viewers and cast alike sleuthed their way through the season with a kind of clairvoyance only possible due to the finale’s voyeuristic production.
As AV Club points out, both Vanderpump and Baskin’s attempts at solace regarding the “human cost” of #Scandoval feel as fake as Sandoval’s crocodile tears. Ratings will always be good as gold, long after Vanderpump no longer rules.