There was a moment about three-quarters of the way through the seventh season of Vanderpump Rules when I realized: Oh my god, I hope this is where it ends.
It was not a sentiment I had seen coming. I’ve been watching VPR since it debuted on Bravo in 2013, when it was just an upstart spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, serving mostly as an excuse for Housewife Lisa Vanderpump to put her restaurants’ names (SUR, Pump, and Villa Blanca) on television as often as possible — long before the show became a legitimate phenomenon, before the cast was being profiled in Vogue, and getting shouted out on Snapchat by Rihanna. (Vanderpump recently quit Real Housewives.)
And for most of that six-year run, all I’ve ever wanted from the show was more: more maybe-coded fights about pasta, more of Tequila Katie’s rage-texting, more of Jax’s nose jobs and ill-advised post-breakup tattoos, and more, please god more, of Tom Sandoval’s intricate manscaping rituals and outlandish costume party getups.
But if you were writing a narrative arc for the characters of Vanderpump Rules, I had to admit, this would be where you’d want to leave them: at the end of Season 7, when almost everyone appeared more stable, more sane, and generally just happier than they did back when we first encountered them, lo those many years ago.
For starters, their romantic relationships have settled down considerably. Stassi Schroeder and Jax Taylor, who spent the first several seasons in a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship, have broken up for good, and found partners who seem to genuinely love them. The death of Jax’s father in early 2018 inspired him to propose to longtime girlfriend Brittany Cartwright; the two got married over the summer. Stassi, meanwhile, is engaged to boyfriend Beau Clark. SURvers Katie Maloney-Schwartz and Tom Schwartz are married and talking about having children; Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval are seriously committed to each other and talking about not getting married or having children.
And though none of them have become the models, actors, or musicians they had envisioned being when we first met them, almost all have successful entrepreneurial ventures: Schroeder has a podcast, Straight Up With Stassi, and wrote a book called Next Level Basic, which was published by Simon & Schuster in April. Scheana Shay also podcasts; Kristen Doute has a T-shirt brand and is also writing a book. Lala Kent has a makeup line (and, to be fair, a handful of acting credits). Kristen also partnered with Stassi and Katie on a wine called Witches of Weho. The Toms (Schwartz and Sandoval) might be the most successful of them all, co-owning a bar with none other than Lisa Vanderpump herself.
But reality television isn’t about happy endings — the whole point of the format is that it is endless, ongoing, generating intricate conflict as reliably as any midafternoon soap opera. So what happens when a cast starts to outgrow the roles they’ve been playing so successfully for so long?
Vanderpump Rules is both a literal and a spiritual descendant Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The show draws its dramatic structure from RHOBH’s: It centers on the substance-fueled infighting of a group of increasingly well-preserved people whose champagne problems are stupid enough to be hilariously, darkly compelling.
A major difference between the two, however, is that while most Housewives are somewhere north of 40, when Vanderpump premiered, its cast comprised (sometimes very) young hopefuls. Stassi was 24 when the pilot aired, with Jax as the resident old man at 33. These weren’t wealthy, well-established people trying to get themselves a little extra PR; they were soft-skulled children trying to crawl their way toward the D-list, or at least more money than they were making on their restaurant shifts. It was exactly opposite the kind of aspirational reality shows viewers had gotten used to.
To watch an episode of Real Housewives is to see how a life of privilege can extend one’s adolescence into infinity; you get the sense that these women had calcified into parodies of themselves long before anyone trained a TV camera on them. On Vanderpump, however, especially in those early days, you had to wonder what would become of the cast — whether they’d achieve their dreams of being famous musicians, models, and actors, or whether they would eventually be forced to realize the limits of their talent, give up, and live regular lives like the rest of us.
The answer, of course, is that neither of those things happened. Instead, they became reality television stars, a genre of celebrity they’ve helped invent over the course of the last decade. Like the Kardashians, who perfected the format, the Vanderpump cast used a traditional media platform to accrue significant social media followings, which then helped them launch independent entrepreneurial ventures and establish full-time careers playing themselves on and off the screen.
Instead of being encouraged to grow into the adult versions of those selves, then, they have been rewarded heartily and consistently for largely staying the same. So even though Stassi has finally met a man who seems to actually like her (as opposed to her most recent ex Patrick Meagher, whose nonsensical lecture on “treating relationships myopically” is one of the most cringeworthy things I’ve ever seen on TV), she’s still getting into serious drunken fights with him semi-regularly.
It has reliably been the highlight of my winter for the better part of the last decade — who would want to say goodbye to that kind of relationship?
It is, of course, hard to say how much of this is staged. Certainly many of the show’s “Can I talk to you for a second?” sit-downs are carefully arranged for the cameras; what’s less clear is how real the anger that underlies them might be. But the glassy-eyed, word-slurring look of a drunken night truly can’t be faked, and it’s strange to know that someone I’ve never met is wrecking their liver partly to more effectively entertain me as I venture ever deeper into my increasingly teetotalling thirties. Worse, perhaps, is that sometimes it feels like the cast has to get drunk in order to gin up drama: the days of tearing off your shirt in a parking lot and sleeping with your best friend’s boyfriend (twice!) are gone, and replaced by mostly milquetoast conflicts over who does and doesn’t get invited to various Vanderpump-adjacent events.
All of which puts me, as a viewer and fan, in a strange place. In theory, I want to keep watching Vanderpump Rules forever. It has reliably been the highlight of my winter for the better part of the last decade — who would want to say goodbye to that kind of relationship? And yet, the part of me that’s invested hundreds of hours into these peoples’ lives, who cannot help but feel a little tender toward them, wants them to grow up and go away, to let go of the drama and find something else to do with themselves.
I want to believe that Stassi and Beau and Ariana and Tom Sandoval are with each for the long haul — that they’re going to make it work. (I want Katie to leave Tom Schwartz, but that’s its own kind of maturity!) I want to believe that Stassi is going to stop getting shitfaced and picking fights with Beau; I want to believe that Jax has finally found a girl he won’t cheat on. (Well, won’t cheat on again.) And I want to believe that after all of the miserable drama of their twenties, the Witches of Weho are truly eternal BFFAEs.
For now, at least, that’s not going to happen: Season 8 premieres Jan. 7, and if the trailer is anything to go by, there’s as much crying and drinking and ridiculous costume-wearing as ever. Kristen is feuding with Katie and Stassi, and Tom Schwartz with Jax. The cast has all the markers of external adult accomplishment — their houses, marriages, and businesses — but their emotional maturity will remain at the same level as always: perfectly calibrated to keep me and millions of others watching.
It seems that I’m not the only one who worries that this dynamic might start getting stale. Traditionally, VPR has introduced new cast members gradually over the course of its run, mostly when they started dating someone who was already a regular — Ariana became a cast member because of her relationship with Tom Sandoval, and James Kennedy because of his with Kristen; when James transitioned to a regular in Season 4 of VPR, his crush on hostess Lala Kent helped ease her into the spotlight, and the show’s ongoing storylines.
But for Season 8, Bravo is dropping three whole brand-new people into the cast: Dayna Kathan, Max Boyens, and Brett Caprioni. In the trailer, they spout familiar dramatic one-liners. (“Are you 34, or are you 16?” Dayna asks OG VPR star Scheana, presumably mid-argument, as Scheana takes a huffy pull on her inhaler.) James’ extraordinarily boring girlfriend Raquel Leviss is also joining the main cast, to my intense personal dismay. Raquel could never fight about the pasta — she is the pasta: a limp buttered noodle, no cheese.
Look, maybe I’m wrong to worry — maybe the new kids have the magic of the original Vanderpumpers, and in a few years I’ll be as obsessed with their antics as I am with the fact that Jax bought James limited-edition Supreme underwear. (Never forget.)
But these new cast members start at a disadvantage — back in 2013, Vanderpump Rules was an unknown quantity, and agreeing to be on the show wasn’t slam-dunk obvious. Reality TV stars hadn’t yet transitioned into a regular part of the celebrity pantheon, and it felt like there was genuine risk to going on one of these shows — because we still believed, back in those sweet, innocent days, that there might be such a thing as bad publicity, that you could actually ruin your reputation if you dared to do something tacky.
Now our president is a reality TV alum, Kim Kardashian is his most effective political adviser, and even a season or two on VPR will net you enough Instagram followers to make you a #boohoobabe. You don’t have to be particularly memorable or funny — you just have to be there, because the structures that will create fame and wealth for you are already well-established.
It’s impossible to watch fresh faces appear on your television screen and not know exactly what they’re after — to know that they are aware of exactly what they’re getting themselves into, and why. In 2013, it still felt believable that the cast was part of some grand experiment, that they just wanted me to watch, to pay attention to them because they earnestly believed they were actually interesting. Now it’s impossible to forget that these people are on TV because they hope to capture my attention in order to sell me things and make themselves rich as fuck in the process.
This problem is not limited to Vanderpump Rules, of course. The Bachelor, for instance, has recently been dealing with critical blowback from viewers who have become, over the show’s 20-something seasons, all too familiar with its character types and narrative formulas — and as an increasing number of each season’s fresh-faced hopefuls are self-evidently just there trying to launch a personal brand (RIP to the career of Whaboom Guy). Reality TV is no longer the Wild West, and both its stars and its viewers know it. At this point, the genre is a multimillion-dollar industry, not just launching careers, but also creating billionaire superstars.
We may be on the verge of a generational changeover, as some of reality TV’s pioneers are considering getting out of the game altogether: Kim Kardashian recently said in an interview that she thinks she might want to “give up being Kim K.” in order to practice as a criminal defense lawyer.
Having seen once-beloved shows fall apart before, as well as now living in a sequel and reboot-obsessed culture, I’ve come to value the certainty of a good ending.
So what’s happening on VPR is just the natural process of an industry having growing pains — for the first time, these shows have been on long enough to start reaching natural-seeming end points, something that “reality,” as opposed to fictionalized narrative, is not supposed to have.
And that’s the real thing: There’s just an extent to which nothing lasts forever, and nothing gold can stay. Vanderpump Rules has been magic for seven seasons, which is longer than The West Wing, Buffy, or Community stayed good. Plus, having seen once-beloved shows fall apart before, as well as now living in a sequel and reboot-obsessed culture, I’ve come to value the certainty of a good ending: of shows that know how to go out strong rather than waiting to fizzle, wither, and eventually fade.
Last season Jax floated the idea of leaving LA, moving to Florida and doing social media for a hockey team, and though his castmates laughed him off — “Every year since I’ve met Jason Cauchi [Jax’s given name], he’s either moving to Vegas, or going to Florida,” Kristen said in a Vanderpump Rules After Show interview — the idea has some merit. After all, Jax and co. have made their money: “Put it this way, if I’m smart about it, and if I live reasonably, I’ll be good for the rest of my life,” he told Complex in 2016. They could walk away. And their lives would, arguably, be better for it.
The cast of Vanderpump Rules talks a lot about their authenticity, which is, to be fair, a reality TV star watchword: Cast members are basically always saying that their shows are their real lives, what you see is what you get, etcetera. But that used to feel true for VPR in a way that it no longer does, and there’s nothing worse than watching something that used to be weird and good get practiced and corny. So even though I still love Vanderpump, part of me is curious what it would mean both for me and for the cast if we were willing to let go of what’s worked so far — if we were willing to make a new bet, and start trying to figure out what happens next. ●
Zan Romanoff is the author of the novels A Song to Take the World Apart and Grace and the Fever out now, as well as Look, which is forthcoming from Dial Books in March 2020. She’s a full-time freelance writer; her work has appeared in print and online for BuzzFeed, Eater, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives and writes in LA.