return to form


Close up shot of Tom Sandoval, a dark-haired man with a mustache, with his hands clasped in front of his face, with greenery behind his shoulders. A closed caption on the lower half of the image reads: "I wanted to play pickleball. It had been seven months."

Which rates a higher level of difficulty: keeping a beloved franchise alive or starting one? This inspired by the recent season premiere of Vanderpump Rules, which is already being hailed as a glorious return to form. On this I would have to agree and am further curious about what we mean, what we see and feel, more specifically to render such a judgement. It is easy to spot when Vanderpump had gone off, or at least speculate why: the show reached that critical self-reflexive moment in reality television, the franchise having reached a level of popularity that allowed it to have thoughts about itself, akin to craning one’s neck in the studio mirrors to see if one’s extension is suitably impressive. This is far from unique to VPR—Jersey Shore, which has been on my mind of late (inexplicably could not get the theme song out of my head this weekend), reached a zenith that threatened the integrity of its very premise; the cast had to escape to Italy to get over themselves. Such danger lurks behind any reality ensemble, though the Bravo shows seem uniquely vulnerable (or maybe they simply represent greatest portion of my reality tv viewing) for thriving off the sociality of its casts.

Case and point: Summer/Winter House. The series began by documenting the ritual summer weekending of a group of inane 20s and 30s somethings—while the titular House served as something of a homebase, the cast was hardly content to stay in one place nor only around each other; parties provided the opportunity for lots of mixing and mingling and bad behavior in front of and amongst various NPC-like visitors and no matter how grand the lodgings the impulse to go out never abated. The show adapted well enough to Covid, better than other Bravo shows, for having a readymade quarantine pad. Instead of going out, the cast would shut themselves in, not for a weekend, but for a season, with as many shipments of Loverboy and party favors as needed to keep things drunk and interesting. And yet, even as Covid restrictions have lessened, allowing for the return of large-scale gatherings and ventures into town, the show has still lost some of the 3rd party energy that made its main characters really shine. I’m sure it is easy for everyone involved, from cast to production, to keep things bottled, but as a viewer there is a certain claustrophobia that becomes wearying to watch.

In a way, VPR suffered from an opposite problem. Its center of gravity weakened as the show went on. VPR began and persists as a mutually beneficial promotional exercise between Lisa Vanderpump, formerly of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Bravo, the opportunity to showcase her core set of West Hollywood restaurants (and attendant expansions) as the backdrop to enticing interpersonal drama. In the beginning, all routes—and drama—flowed through SUR, its hub. The cast were SUR employees, living in shitty apartments and going out where stuff happened to be litigated at work the next day. As the show became beloved, the auspices of the restaurant became harder to sustain—the cast worked at SUR (in a manner of speaking; in front of the camera) but no longer need be employed by SUR—and the personalities became protective of what they had made for/of themselves (relatively). VPR—$$$—enabled its characters to have a real go at conventions they were failing at when we found them: monogamy, marriage, home-owning and -making, children, professional endeavors (opening a bar; writing a book). The irony of course being that their success in these ventures, a yield of mini-LVPs, runs contra the lifeblood of the show. VPR brought in some newbies to try to stoke mess, but the main cast, ensconced in their $2-point-something million Studio City abodes, refused to play ball and when that happens (see: RHOSLC; RHOP) it’s time for life support.

There’s a kind of vacant middle with the Bravoverse that I used to think of in terms of age, but really has more to do with the adherence (or not) to certain life scripts than a timeline. There’s the shows where things fail or at least struggle to cohere (VPR; Summer House) and the shows were things fall apart (Housewives) but the hum of domestic hijinks in between is the stuff of sitcoms, not reality television. I want to detach from the sense of age in part because age is a little wonky on these shows. The original ensemble on VPR ranged from early 20s to mid-30s (LVP excluded); Tom Schwartz, a prototypical man-child, “was never in his 20s on the show!” as one Reddit commenter put it. Or if age is relevant, it’s a kind of twenties of the spirit, which could have a kind of multiplied meaning given these shows’ penchant for a Roaring Twenties themed occasion (plus also something there re: the oppressive heterosexuality of that aesthetic, as delightfully plumbed in an episode of the podcast StraightioLab). Housewives regain that spirit, or something like it, on the other side of what was promised by marriage, the house etc. Both yearning and disillusionment (and the young and older have measures of both) are very very watchable.

Which brings me back to VPR, S10, E1. See if the setup sounds familiar: long-term castmates and Bubbas, Katie and Schwartz, have divorced; a once (and… still?) holier and cuntier than thou castmate is navigating sobriety and dating and single mothering, in the throes of divorcing her monster husband; another break-up, the engagement between James and Raquel, the former of whom has already found and moved in a new girlfriend and the latter of whom must figure out an affirmative identity where she once defined herself by proximity to her alcoholic boyfriend; a business/personal partnership is breaking under one half’s dead weight and one cast member has a husband nobody likes, who therefore probably won’t be seen much. And one member of the cast is creeping.

Okay, that got pretty specific there at the end, but hopefully illustrates the point: conditions are ripe. Yearning and disillusionment. That is not even to include the fact that the cast seems very game it feels, finally back in the business of making good television. Though maybe this is too much being made of a season premiere! The original VPR is gone forever, I think, but it’s promising that the old girl can still put on a show. Some wear and tear may have been exactly what was needed.

reading: still need to get around to the January books round-up and seeing as it’s halfway through February; think I’ll wait ‘till the end of this month and combine.

teaching: Stephen Best, None Like Us; Robin D. G. Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle” forum.

watching:  top chef s15; vpr; rhom; rhop (regretfully); superbowl

moving: what weather! bad for the planet but good for getting miles in. had a slogging long run (7 mi) yesterday; also back to a lifting schedule so have to wonder if that’s the reason. I’ve signed up for a half marathon in the spring but haven’t really laid down a training plan—can’t decide if I want to be regimented or go on vibes.