Is it, or is it not, about the pasta? For the past two weeks, it has seemed that nearly everyone I follow on Twitter is consumed by this question.
The furor arose from this season’s Episode 7 of the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules, called “It’s Not About the Pasta.” In it, British busser turned DJ James Kennedy got in a fight with his friend Lala Kent over whether or not she liked his girlfriend Raquel, a beauty queen who’s basically a pair of sentient false eyelashes, which led to a heated exchange about how Lala had eaten all of his girlfriend’s pasta.
The fight is entirely nonsensical and needlessly aggressive, and one could argue that maybe the producers of this reality show had manufactured this drama, were it not so wholly stupid. (Overwrought cheating storylines I can see, but an entire episode around “you ate Raquel’s pasta” is not likely to be a ratings blockbuster.) But the real glory of this scene lies in James’ rant, now reproduced and transmitted around the internet in gloriously contextless clip form. He tells Lala, “You fucked a fat man because he pays your rent,” and she replies, “Learn your fucking place, motherfucker, or else you’re going to learn real goddamn quick when you look next to you and I’m not there anymore,” before storming out of the restaurant. James follows her and yells at her some more, repeating three times with varying degrees of emotional exhaustion, “It’s not about the pastaaaaa,” before they cut to a talking head interview with James, again, saying, “It’s not about the pasta!”
Was it about the pasta? Or was it about Lala not respecting James’ girlfriend, a crop top brought to life by an evil witch? Is pasta, as many have posited, actually cocaine, because why else would anyone involved care about its consumption so much? It doesn’t matter. This dramatic pasta-based scene highlighted what makes this show so excellent, so watchable, and so necessary to any reality show education. Against all odds, Vanderpump Rules — which often makes no sense at all and is, at times, abjectly unpleasant — is one of the best reality shows on television today.
Vanderpump Rules, which premiered in 2013, was originally a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and its universe is the empire of West Hollywood restaurants and bars owned by Housewives cast member Lisa Vanderpump. There’s Sur, Villa Blanca, newest addition Pump, and the forthcoming Tom Tom, which will be opened in partnership with Vanderpump and her two dumbest (male) employees, both named Tom.
The show follows Sur’s servers, bartenders, bussers, and hostesses — past and present — both at work and while partying together as friends, though they seemingly hate each other with a viciousness you wouldn’t exactly reserve for your “friends.” Despite the fact that they are all perennially locked in an emotional battle to the death with interchangeable members of the clique, and change allegiances at a whim, they still go to each other’s housewarmings, birthdays, weddings, bachelorettes. As far as I’m concerned, all of these people should be in a maximum-security prison.
There’s Stassi, a Bizarro Lauren Conrad and the self-absorbed former server who used to date Jax, a bartender who looks like a live-action Scar from The Lion King. Jax cheats on everyone, and is now dating Brittany, who moved all the way from Kentucky to live with him (he paid for her boob job, it’s true love!!!!) only to have him cheat on her with Faith, another Sur-ver. Then there’s Tom Schwartz, who keeps making out with girls at bars even though he’s married to Katie (whom he calls “Bubba” and obviously hates), who’s friends with Stassi (depending on the season) and Kristen, who slept with Jax while he was still dating Stassi. Kristen also used to date the other Tom (Sandoval), who’s now dating Ariana, who hates pretty much everyone except for Scheana, who was the woman who slept with former RHOBH star Brandi Glanville’s husband a few years ago and who, in one episode, needs to be force-fed carbohydrates by Lisa Vanderpump during a Pride party.
Scheana was married to Shay but they got a divorce because Shay had a drinking problem and an addiction to painkillers, which they tried to work through but the tough thing about people in recovery is that they tend to not want to go to parties where everyone gets wasted and screams at each other, which is what Scheana has built her career on. Scheana, after first icing her out because Katie and Stassi and Kristen told her to, is now friends with Lala, the closest to a feminist this show will ever get. And then, of course, there’s Lala’s friend James, and his girlfriend Raquel, who are all very wound up about the pasta. (I can’t even begin to get into the problem that is Logan, James’s best friend, who is clearly in love with him and who starts a rumour that they’ve been having sex.)
Meanwhile, Lisa Vanderpump still pretends this is a show about the restaurant business, so every few episodes you’re subjected to some vague detail about her Vanderpump-branded sangria or how she likes her floral arrangements done (by her own hand, thank you) or the fact that the goat cheese balls are allegedly good with a salad. Sometimes, the show detours into Vanderpump’s home, which is called Villa Rosa, where the front door is flanked by two live swans named, respectively, Hanky and Panky.
How did we get here? Please throw a rope into this hole I am in. I want to go home.
Poll your friends and you’re sure to find a closet Vanderpump Rules fan, someone who’s already watched all six (THERE ARE ALREADY SIX) seasons and has clear ideas about who they like and who they don’t. When I announced recently that I would begin watching the show, several of my colleagues came forward as not only faithful watchers, but as people who cared deeply about certain characters and whether their actions were human rights infractions or merely passively bad.
This is what’s so interesting about Vanderpump. No reality show has been so devoid of sympathetic characters, so hostile toward the human watching experience, and yet so eminently watchable. As a viewer you begin to side with particular people even if they are sexist, selfish, rude, drunk, wanton, or simply annoying.
Nearly every other comparable reality show had someone who viewers can champion: Jersey Shore had Snookie, a likable fuckup; Cardi B was a clear standout in Love and Hip-Hop: New York; no one in the Real Housewives franchise should be given any attention, but Erika Jayne, a purported pop star who travels everywhere with a “glam squad,” still makes for compelling and charming television. The closest thing Vanderpump Rules offers to a character worth rooting for is Lisa Vanderpump’s tiny Pomeranian Giggy, whose alopecia has forever consigned him to outfits that make him look like Prince. (Vanderpump also has a husband named Ken, and he is about as interesting as the doll.)
Every character on this show is an indefensible monster whose parents clearly gave them either too much attention or none at all. Their attitudes and behaviors are worsened only by their ever-worsening looks: Jax’s expanding face, Sandoval’s hair extensions, which, in a later season, are braided by a braiding professional, and Katie’s leopard print forearm tattoo, which looks like a temporary tattoo from a Josie and the Pussycats–themed loot bag.
And yet, while every character is so markedly terrible, you still somehow hope they’ll do better. Every time Jax is accused of cheating on his girlfriend, I always think, No, surely not — he’s learned his lesson from the time before. When Scheana started dating an actor named Rob I was sure they’d make it, despite their own cheating rumor scandal, which spanned multiple episodes. When Lala accused Tom Schwartz of getting black-out drunk and making out with another girl after he married Katie, I thought, Impossible — even Idiot Tom #2 wouldn’t do such a thing. The only thing that doesn’t surprise me is that Lisa Vanderpump watches these ding-dongs fight with each other in her restaurant, and cracks a slight smile while thinking of all the other ding-dongs like myself who are desperate to eat goat cheese balls at Sur just for a chance to watch Scheana cry thick mascara-blackened tears.
These people are all too old to be acting this way. The cast was mostly in their mid-twenties when the show started, but they’re now in their early thirties, and still taking shots at bridal showers and calling each other whores like they’re in the ninth grade. Jax, for one, is 38. If you’re at the point in your life where you have to get regular cholesterol tests, you can’t be pressing your penis against the window of a Las Vegas hotel room. (Or, I guess, you can, but you should also have a retirement plan in place.) The things they do to each other, from cheating to slapping to punching, are nauseating and deplorable. Watching Jax smile while wiping blood off his face after Sandoval punches him at Sur is something they should show psychopathy profilers.
By any measurement, these are bad people, but once you get a few episodes deep into Vanderpump Rules, you start feeling protective of them. Why do I care about defending Ariana? She signed on to this show, so she’s obviously garbage, but as far as I’m concerned, she is the least garbage person on it. (This season, she called her boyfriend Sandoval “obtuse” during the worst fight of their relationship. It was clearly a word he had never heard before; he just screamed it back at her as if he’d suddenly understand the meaning through angry repetition. After that, I started printing my own Team Ariana T-shirts in my apartment.)
My editor once called Lala a “feminist icon.” Lala’s not not a feminist, but going to bat for a woman who once screamed at a group of other women at a nightclub, “I can see that everybody here has not been working on their summer bodies!” seems like a stretch. And yet, when Lala rallies all the leading women of the show together to scream at their boyfriends collectively, you can’t help but root for her. You know what? Lala is in the sisterhood. She’s our generation’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Give her a book deal: I want to know how she manages to look both 22 and 45.
Once you’ve somehow become invested in these people, it’s troubling that the cast’s lives never seem to measurably improve over six seasons, despite the money they’re making sitting around their apartments taking shots and filling kiddie pools with margarita mix. Briefly, we’re forced to pretend that their “professional” endeavors matter, from Katie’s lifestyle blog to Tom and Tom’s restaurant to whatever Stassi is doing these days. (Event planning? Sure.) They’re all still living in the same shitty apartments, with walls that are bare except for spray-painted art or pictures of themselves, and A/C units that short out their electricity when someone turns on the microwave. Vanderpump is the least glamorous of all of Bravo’s properties, which are primarily shows about money and excess and watching rich people do shit. It’s anti-aspirational.
And yet, never before has a show existed that I watched with such voracity and greed. It only took me three weeks to plow through five seasons and eight episodes of the show. That’s 75 hours of watching Jax cheat on Stassi, and now-disappeared Laura-Leigh, and, currently, Brittany. It’s full days of my life devoted to watching Stassi scream “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY” while Schwartz dumps a beer on her head. (You might think that you’d be Team Stassi, since the poor girl got soaked on her birthday. But you’re not. Trust me, you’re not.)
The results of binge-watching this show manifested in a number of negative symptoms. Halfway through, my partner noticed I was picking fights with him and dragging them out into wildly unnecessary arguments. I accused him of cheating on me or of being disinterested. All men cheat on their partners, I thought bitterly. “This is because you’ve been watching too much Numbucks,” he said, Numbucks being, inexplicably, what he thought Vanderpump Rules was actually called. “You’re not Stezzie, okay?” (He meant “Stassi.” This error only enraged me more.)
By the time I was nearly caught up on the latest season, my symptoms became physical. Researchers have found that binge-watching can affect your sleep quality, but I don’t know of any studies that suggest doing so makes you want to die. On a Friday, I got a migraine from watching the episode where Jax finally admits that he did, indeed, sleep with Faith while he was dating Brittany. First a pleasant kind of nausea set in, like eating too much cake — it’s uncomfortable, but hey, you got to have so much cake! (Here, I do not mean cocaine.)
But immediately after that, I watched the episode where it was revealed that they actually had sex in the home of an elderly woman Faith was taking care of, without a condom, right next to her, hoping she wouldn’t wake up to discover them. At that discovery, my nausea turned into a severe throbbing right behind my eyes. My migraine lasted for three days, led to plenty of vomiting, and was so miserable that I couldn’t watch another episode, even though I was desperate to find out what Faith’s audio recording of Jax talking shit about Brittany really said.
No show has made me vomit as much as Vanderpump Rules has made me vomit. And yet I still wanted more.
I can defend my affection for almost any guilty pleasure, especially reality shows. I watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey because I’m in it for Teresa Giudice’s redemption story. I like Teen Mom OG and Teen Mom 2 because I’m invested in Chelsea finally finding happiness. I like RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s pure artistry. But Vanderpump Rules has almost no redeeming qualities. The women on the show are all grotesque stereotypes of women: desperate, loathing, cruel, selfish, needy, image-obsessed, and stuffed to the gills with “preventative” botox. The men, meanwhile, are worse, routinely calling their girlfriends bitches or cheating on them or, in Jax’s case, arguing that it doesn’t matter if he slept with Faith once or a hundred times, he said he was sorry, okay, get over it! I can justify almost every bad habit or guilty pleasure with something flimsy (smoking looks cool, binge drinking makes me forget my life is falling apart, biting your nails gives you something to do other than smoking), but Vanderpump Rules is indefensible.
And yet, there’s no other show I’d rather watch at a lightning clip, as it ruins my personal relationships because it makes me paranoid and burrows a migraine deep into my brain and tries to kill me over the course of an exhausting weekend. Maybe that’s because Vanderpump Rules doesn’t pretend to be high-minded entertainment, doesn’t purport to be about fake professional endeavors, as the Housewives franchise now does, forcing the viewer to go to someone’s dog funeral fundraiser or injectables fashion show. (Lisa seems to realize in later seasons of Vanderpump that no one actually does care about how the restaurant is doing, and she seems to relish in those fights happening in the lounge during work hours.)
Vanderpump Rules is pure hedonism. It shouldn’t exist, and it shouldn’t be enjoyable. It’s one of the most shameful examples of reality television, and that’s already a shockingly high bar. It’s the visual equivalent of pounding Sweet’N Lows until you pass out.
But who cares? I’m still thinking about James whining about pasta to Lala, and her shoving her finger into his face while telling him to leave her alone. Vanderpump Rules is never subtle, never working on too many levels. What you see is what you get, be it drunken fighting or cheating or public sobbing. It’s comforting, maybe, to watch a show that isn’t masquerading as something deeper than it actually is. It might not be about the pasta, but it isn’t about much more either. ●
Scaachi Koul is a Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.