How Did ‘Vanderpump Rules’ Get This Season So Wrong?

Ultimately, Tuesday's finale was a fitting end to a season made most memorable by the enormous gulf between what Bravo intended and what fans actually wanted. 

How Did ‘Vanderpump Rules’ Get This Season So Wrong?

On Tuesday, Bravo aired the third and final part of this season’s Vanderpump Rules reunion and finally did what they’d been frothing at the mouth to do all season: make Ariana Madix cry. In a move of stunning cruelty on the part of Bravo’s producers, part three ended with Andy Cohen announcing that the final scene of season 11 had been withheld from the cast in order to make them watch it all together and get their real-time reactions. This meant that Madix–who’d been open about not watching this season in an effort to protect her peace–had to sit by and watch as the man who cheated on and humiliated her excoriated her to her friends (“she talks shit about all of you behind your backs!” he whined). In the episode, her friends (Katie Maloney excluded) agreed with him, adding insults of their own. 

Particularly vicious were the remarks from self-described “Michael Vick attack dog” Lala Kent (who is also paradoxically in her “soft” era), whose tirade against Madix for not filming with her ex finally unmasked the very thinly veiled jealousy Kent has held for Madix’s post-Scandoval stardom all season. Clearly, the producers thought this was the type of explosive ending fans wanted. Instead, viewers flocked to social media to point out the cruelty of the moment, which was so clearly designed to hurt Madix specifically after she’d avoided being baited into a breakdown by her castmates, her ex, and the producers, all season.

Ultimately, the finale was a fitting end to a season made most memorable by the enormous gulf between what Bravo intended and what fans actually wanted. 

Longtime fans of VPR will know that Scandoval was hardly the show’s first cheating incident. In fact, dating and then cheating on each other has been a central tenet of the show since it first aired in 2013. Jax cheated on Stassi with Kristen (who in turn was cheating on Tom Sandoval). Sandoval cheated on Kristen with Ariana and then cheated on Ariana with Miami Girl. Tom Schwartz cheated on Katie with a parade of unnamed women; Jax cheated on Brittany with Faith–the list goes on and on. Cheating men were at the heart of the VPR universe, and redeeming them (while labeling the women around them “crazy”) has been the show’s tried-and-true formula for years. But when season 11 aired this past January, and the Tom Sandoval redemption arc began to unfold, for the first time ever, VPR fans pushed back.

The hamfisted attempts to make us all feel bad for Tom was immediately clocked as inauthentic by fans who called bullshit on Lisa’s faux concerns for his mental health (especially given the fact that she felt none of the same compassion for Rachel, who was actively in a mental health facility at the time). His tearful “healing meditation” session with Scheana read as similarly contrived. Combine that with his disastrous New York Times interview from February, in which he compared himself to George Floyd, and by episode four, fans were saying they’d had enough of his attempted comeback. 

It’s impossible to know when Bravo became aware of its miscalculation. If producer Alex Baskin is as “in the comments” as Scheana, I can only imagine it was immediate. From Reddit to TikTok to Twitter, fans were flooding the show’s hashtag with one message: Ariana Madix, they could never make us hate you. 

@joshintheoval THAT was what they thought was gonna make us not like ariana? lol #vanderpumprules #pumprules #arianamadix #lalakent #scheanashay #katiemaloney #tomsandoval #tomschwartz #jameskennedy #bravotv #realitytv #lisavanderpump #andycohen #greenscreen ♬ original sound – Josh the RHONY stan

But why? Why did what’s always worked for the show in the past fail so spectacularly this season? I have a few thoughts. 

For one, the audience Bravo was working with for season 11 was a significantly different audience than they’d been working with the previous ten seasons. The massive pop culture moment that was Scandoval led many—myself included—to binge the show for the first time, bringing a whole new group of people into the VPR fold. This new group had not spent the past ten years with the cast, and they’d specifically hopped on the VPR train to watch America’s sweetheart get revenge on her cheating ex. When Bravo chose instead to try to redeem a man this new audience had gone into the show reviling, they–much like Ariana—refused to get on board. 

Then there’s the fact that Tom did not just deceive Ariana with his seven-month affair, he also deceived the original core audience–i.e. the people most likely to be on board with forgiving him. While VPR has often portrayed past cheating scandals as an inevitable conclusion of a relationship gone sour, Ariana and Tom’s relationship was always portrayed as rock solid. In fact, Tom and Raquel went so far as to manufacture a fake romance with Sandoval crony Tom Schwartz (at the expense of his ex-wife and newly minted fan-favorite Katie Maloney) to further cover up their affair. Tom and Raquel played in the audience’s faces, and upon discovery, the audience found they did not like the game. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the audience of 2024 is not the audience of 2013. Viewers today are much more aware of the misogyny that plagued past seasons, and the appetite for a show that portrays all its women as volatile, crazy narcissists, while the men get to be harmless, horny man-children has all but dried up. As many viewers noted, what the audience wanted to see from this season was girl power. 

Audiences also wanted to see the women rally around Ariana; to defend her from her vile, smarmy ex like Charlotte jumping between Carrie and Big after he left her at the altar. Instead, we saw Ariana portrayed as a lazy, unreasonable, hate-filled woman who simply needs to move out and move on (despite the fact that the audience was well aware the season was filmed just three months after the affair was revealed). We saw Scheana conscripted (via some expert emotional manipulation by Lisa Vanderpump herself) to push the Sandoval redemption narrative, while Lala threw herself on the pyre of Ariana hate in a desperate attempt at becoming–as Jax Taylor would say–the number one girl in the group.

The result was a nearly unbearable season that–despite garnering good ratings–alienated audiences and squandered the good will the show had earned post-Scandoval. The relationships between the cast members are so bad post-reunion that the show is now taking a “pause” and will not resume filming this summer. Ariana has moved on to hosting Love Island: U.S. (whether she—or anyone—will return to VPR is unclear) and she and Katie have finally opened their sandwich shop. Meanwhile, Scheana and Lala are doing damage control, if not in hopes of saving the show then in hopes of scoring a spot on VPR spinoff The Valley, despite fans of both shows lobbying hard for that not to happen. 

As for the men, Schwartz is busy dating a 20-year-old influencer, while Sandoval recently went public with Leonardo DiCaprio’s ex, Victoria Lee Robinson. In other words, they’re doing fine, while the women who did their bidding scramble to save their reputations and their futures. 

Just like the show always wanted.

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