Do you know what story you're in?
some not very connected thoughts on #Scandoval
Like much of the internet, my attention has been held captive by a reality TV scandal for the past month. For those lucky enough to have escaped its grasping maw, here is a brief primer on #Scandoval, from someone who hasn’t watched the show in six years (until last month.)
Scandoval is happening on a show called Vanderpump Rules, which started out back in the day when the chunky statement necklace and handkerchief dress reigned supreme. (Ah, 2013. How I don’t miss you.) The show follows a group of mostly-attractive, largely white staff members of former Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant empire, otherwise known as the Vanderpump Culinary Universe. At the center of the vortex is a couple who have been together for ten years: Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval. (Based on the scandal’s hashtag you can guess who behaved badly here.) Also in this friend group of former waiters and bartenders is Raquel (née Rachel) Leviss, who was, up until all of this, one of Ariana’s closest friends. Sometime in the last year, Raquel and Tom began an affair, which wasn’t revealed until after cameras had shut down for the season. (You can bet your butts that cameras started up again immediately, filming a new finale and an excruciating three-part reunion special.)
There aren’t normally craft lessons to be drawn from a show like this, where notable moments from the reunion include one cast member calling Tom Sandoval a “worm with a mustache.” Two things struck me about the scandal, however: first, Tom tried to create a narrative that would justify his cheating, following a playbook eerily similar to previous relationships. Second, Bravo teased an explosive reveal for the end of the third reunion episode, a reveal which ended up being extremely underwhelming. The first situation demonstrates the need to understand the medium you’re in and the tools your readers (or viewers) already possess. The second demonstrates that if you promise something, you have to deliver, at the risk of underwhelming your audience at best or pissing them off at worst.
Let’s talk narrative—and here, I must say that since I haven’t watched all of season ten, the most recent season, my knowledge of what went down is entirely drawn from recaps, articles, and what I saw in the finale/the reunions. As a result of my renewed interest in this show, I also went back and started watching from the beginning, so the Kristen Doute/Tom Sandoval storyline is fresh in my brain.
Throughout this season, Tom Sandoval repeatedly tried to make it look as though he and Ariana were drifting apart—he wasn’t happy, they weren’t having enough sex, she didn’t do enough to keep up around the house. When the news broke that he’d been having an affair, he brought up these same justifications. In one of the rawest, most excruciating scenes of television ever filmed, Ariana confronts Tom, and he brings up all these justifications. He was “seeking something” with Raquel.
The problem is that this narrative is almost blow for blow what happened when he and Ariana got together, with some striking differences. Way back in season two, Tom was dating Kristen Doute, and cheated on her with a rando in Vegas for very similar reasons. We were drifting apart, we weren’t happy— we were “practically roommates” (a charge that got repeated this season.) This tactic more or less worked out for that breakup, and it didn’t hurt that Kristen had also behaved badly. But it had virtually no chance of working this time, because Tom and Raquel forgot a) exactly what kind of show they were on and b) the tools their viewers could bring to the table.
It wasn’t ever going to work, this justification of infidelity on the basis of drifting apart. It wasn’t ever going to work because for the VPR audience to root for a relationship they have to see it play out in front of them, and the affair was conducted entirely in secret. All we have of it on camera are insinuations, conversations, allusions. Moments that in the moment looked fun but in retrospect looked damning. If more of the flirtation had played out on camera—if some of those heart-to-heart conversations between Tom and Raquel happened where we could see her be supportive of him, maybe they could have pulled it off. At the reunion, Tom sat there like a man who’d had his plans ruined—he thought he was going to get away with it and move on without anything changing.
He forgot that not only are reality TV viewers all phDs in connecting dots, but that he’s been on camera for the better part of a decade. For every assertion he made during the reunion, the Bravo editors trotted out convincing footage to the contrary. He also forgot that Ariana isn’t Kristen, who at the time was an alcoholic drama addict who cheated on him with one of his best friends. Ariana has always been the most level-headed cast member, as Roxana Hadidi points out for Vulture:
Throughout season ten, as whispers of impropriety between Sandoval and Leviss grew louder, Madix maintained the calm neutrality that helped her befriend nearly everyone on the show, even those who hated each other, like Maloney and Scheana Shay. Her frankness in confessional interviews, her refusal to get involved as castmates bullied or trash-talked one another, her raw, agonized grief over the deaths of her beloved grandmother and dog, and her big-sister generosity toward Leviss (who, like so many other former Vanderpump Rules faces, could have been quietly shunted off the show after her relationship with a main cast member ended) made her a viewer favorite. Her loyalty and her evenhandedness — and how long she and Sandoval had stayed together, seemingly stable and satisfied, despite their shady origin story — made her the closest thing Vanderpump Rules had to an unblemished heroine. The tactical error Sandoval made, though, was thinking that Ariana’s heroine qualities also made him heroic.
Even as the plan failed Sandoval tried to cling on to some semblance of control, which leads me to the second thing—Bravo’s “shocking reveal.” Throughout the reunion specials Tom and Raquel asserted that “it only happened once” and that it wasn’t an affair, per se, just a mistake. For a show about hot people serving drinks there were a surprising number of discussions around the semantics of “mistress.” But at the end of the third reunion, it all fell apart—in a separate confessional, Raquel told a producer that it had been ongoing and intense, even so far as the two of them having sex while Ariana was out of town at her grandmother’s funeral.
Here’s where Bravo erred: they drew out the reveal so long that the other cast members had all had ample time to go on what felt like every podcast known to man—the VPR Podcast Extended Universe if you will—and hash out theory after theory. By the time the third reunion rolled around, the information that Raquel gave the producer didn’t feel new or scandalous, just a confirmation of what people had already guessed. The dots had been connected by a thousand tiktokers, aided by material from the cast members themselves.
For it to be a changed timeline of the affair felt anticlimactic. Of course two people who had been lying about cheating would fudge the dates. Of course Tom Sandoval, the emotional equivalent of a piece of wet bread, would think that concealing the extent of the affair would be “less hurtful” for his life partner of a decade. It didn’t feel surprising, it didn’t feel new. Crucially, it didn’t feel like a reason to delay signing contracts to film season eleven, a tidbit proferred by the showrunner as a reason why contracts hadn’t been signed yet. “They all need a little time” was the reason given, which opened up speculation to wholly new avenues of betrayal. Perhaps the bejeweled matriarch herself, Lisa Vanderpump, knew of the affair and didn’t tell Ariana? Perhaps after ten years the time had come to move on from SUR, Vanderpump’s signature restaurant and the home base for the show since day 1? If they moved the action to, say, TomTom, the bar owned by Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz, cast members could feel understandably hesitant about signing up to support a cheater’s bar. Maybe Raquel is pregnant? After all, Ariana and Tom had been going through fertility issues.
Nope, none of that. Just a confirmation of something we’d all guessed. Bravo is catching some flak for hyping it up as much as they did, understandably. The producers and editors made the same mistake as Tom did—they forgot that the viewers have all that memory, too, and that they could (and did) draw the conclusions themselves.
This has been a long newsletter on a very silly subject, but the other day I was watching old episodes of VPR and explaining one or another of the interconnecting relationships to my sister. “Shakespeare could never,” I said. I stand by it.
WHAT I’M READING
Instead of reading any of the books I mentioned last week, I started Martha Wells’ mammoth new fantasy Witch King. I’m only fifty pages in, which feels like a critical tipping point—if I can make it to one hundred I’ll finish it, but it’s a little slow-going.
My first novel, Marrying In, is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
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