Magazine article The New Yorker

Big Gulp

Magazine article The New Yorker

Big Gulp

Article excerpt

Big Gulp

Drinking and drama on "Vanderpump Rules."

It's always easier to condescend to a reality show before you start watching it.

Beyonce's sumptuous adultery opera "Lemonade" came out the week that I began watching the Bravo reality series "Vanderpump Rules," and it turned out to be an oddly appropriate soundtrack for the show. "What's worse? Looking jealous or crazy?" Beyonce croons in the video, swinging a baseball bat labelled "Hot Sauce." "I really don't want to cry off all this makeup I just put on," a waitress named Scheana says on the show, struggling to compose herself for a photo shoot. "Something's telling me I may or may not have a fake friend," Ariana, another waitress, seethes, glaring over at Scheana.

I'd downloaded "Vanderpump Rules" onto my phone, so that I could watch the show's four seasons more efficiently: on the F train, in line at the supermarket, and while drifting off to sleep, an approach that felt less like binge-watching than like inserting an I.V. of sangria. A humble spinoff of the sprawling "Real Housewives" multiverse, "Vanderpump Rules" revolves around the employees of SUR (an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant), a West Hollywood venue owned by Lisa Vanderpump, a longtime cast member of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," which ended its sixth season last week. I'd fallen so far behind on that show, I'd never catch up. Rather than approach the intimidating portal of the original franchise, with its decade-long cross-series feuds, jail sentences, life-style brands, divorces, and handbag lines, I would sneak in through the servants' entrance.

When the "Real Housewives" franchise debuted, in 2006, set in Orange County, I was a deep devotee of the reality genre. I was an O.G. "Big Brother" Web-watcher and a "Real World" completist, and caught up on shows from "The Amazing Race" to "Wife Swap." Yet "The Real Housewives" left me cold. It rankled me in a way that earlier shows--even schlock like "Joe Millionaire"--had not. The few episodes I saw felt like misogynist vaudeville, with cast members monetizing the world's ugliest portrayals of women, a type of auto-drag, humiliating rather than quasi-celebratory. Over the years, I developed a private theory about the franchise's appeal: when the New York version became an enormous hit, around 2008, it felt like a cultural conspiracy to distract the world from the almost universally male villains of the financial crash. Rather than satirize rich men in suits, the show put the bull's-eyes on their trophy wives, painting them as vain parasites, symbols of greed--consumerist gargoyles who might absorb the fury that was more logically directed at Wall Street itself.

That seemed plausible, and maybe it was a little bit true. But, then again, I'd never really watched the "Housewives." For one thing, the women weren't married to any hedge-fund quants. It's always easier to condescend to a reality show before you start watching it--and watching it, and watching it. This is true of almost all reality soaps: the pleasure is less in the show than in the bubbly, cathartic, alternately cruel and tender talk that surrounds it, with its Wikipedian rabbit-holes and weirdly therapeutic reunions and after-shows, the fizzy in-jokes of a largely queer and female audience. Watching "Vanderpump" felt less like watching TV than like becoming a sports fan. One minute, the show was a grim slog, a repetitive ritual that threatened to drag on forever, like baseball. The next minute, it was aggressively fun--the kind of thing that makes your heart leap whenever a fight breaks out, like hockey! To enjoy it, you just have to ignore the potential brain damage for the players once the game ends, as with football.

The premise of "Vanderpump Rules" is simple enough: a group of hot people work at a restaurant, which is run by a wealthy woman with a taste for neon pink and small dogs. Early on, the employees are mostly dull couples, but invariably they cheat, break up, and re-form new friendships and romantic pairings, absorbing once excluded newcomers and icing out former B. …

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