I find it profound that Scandoval “is all really happening” (Scheana merch reference) during the WGA strike and the rise of ChatGPT, because this season and the last couple episodes in particular feel so extremely WRITTEN. In dialog, in plotting, in characterization. Every scene screams with meaning. Every line rings with cringe.
Is Raquel Leviss ChatGPT? Is she the soulless technological breakthrough that delivered us from the last three years of stagnation to today, a never-before-seen level of reality tv, featuring the eeriest, most robotic villain performance yet. And while I do mean this abstractly, if you told me that in the cameras-down moments, Raquel was plugging in queries to OpenAI to come up with the most dramatic Bravo-y thing to do and say in every situation, well then I’d understand why she decided, during Scheana’s destination wedding, to volunteer to go to Katie’s room and let her know that she’s been taken off the list for the preferred pool.
I believe it was Emily Nussbaum who said that reality tv is a casting director’s medium the way movies are a director’s medium and tv is a writer’s medium (roughly paraphrased). I’d argue that casting is a form of predictive writing. It could be that the real magic trick happened much earlier, ten years ago when Lisa Vanderpump (Machiavelli to some, Michelangelo to me) recognized that she had inadvertently hired the messiest, most narcissistic group of SURvers the world have ever seen.
But then, combine savvy casting with TEN YEARS of Bravo culture immersion. It’s really almost a mad scientist type experiment how long these humans have been living/breathing Bravo. They have grown up in this insane workplace. Ten years of living in 6 month bursts of shooting. Ten years of ordering goat cheese balls on TV and attending multiple events in one day. A whole decade spent training the algorithm on the promotional parties you can throw, on what plays and what cancels. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that generationally this group probably consumed the six years of Bravo programming that preceded Vanderpump, and six years of the Hills/Laguna Beach/MTV shows before that.
Everyone on the show has been generating the usual artificial plotlines, reiterating their resentments in endless combinations, but Raquel is lacking a critical time parameter in her algorithm. She is playing this like it’s Season 1 Vanderpump, back when cheating on/with a cast member was inevitable. Unfortunately for Raquel, it’s season 10; she may be 28 but these people are pushing forty. Tom and Tom are 40 and 41. They have marriages and mortgages. The stakes have changed.
Honestly the thing that feels most written to me is Ariana’s performance. Ironically—Ariana’s willful resistance to the Vanderpump hallmarks of 1) not trusting a younger hotter woman and 2) obsessing over inconsistencies in friends’ alibis—has led her to the most heart-wrenching unwitting victim role. Like a horror movie, but make it Bravo.
As much as she flummoxes me, I did have a little sympathy for where Raquel started this season, newly single and extremely confused, having aged out of her Miss California ambition and forced to confront the cold hard truth that “occupational therapist” was never more than a field to fill in on pageant paperwork. I believe she probably meant to seduce Schwartz and accidentally seduced Sandoval instead—Sandoval being a man ruined by ego and whatever drug causes you to say you “like stimuli” while snapping your fingers at a camera. But then she became radicalized—by a traumatic Vegas trip, by a lover’s encouragement—and now she’s a lawless cowboy in a $700 lightning bolt necklace, with “bodies on the ground,” just as Lala forewarned.
Maybe Scandoval is not a breakthrough in AI but the natural magic of the superbloom. We had been in a great drought (need I remind you of how boring this show was? Multiple episodes devoted to Randall Emmet’s Pickleball tournament...Daily Mail preview party after preview party). The seeds Lisa Vanderpump had sewn 10 years ago had gone into full mid-life-crisis, accruing resentments year after year with no sign of respite, until out of nowhere and for no predictable reason, a great rain saved us. Well, saved Ariana, at least.
Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe Scandoval is profound because of what we know now, an excellent point Danielle Schneider made on Bitch Sesh a couple weeks ago. It is profound in the obvious, unremarkable way in which life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Maybe that’s the something extra, the sprinkle of reality tv MSG that make these episodes taste so deeply of Bravo.
Maybe it’s the Vanderpump world ending, à la the Hindu story of the universe starting in perfect order and devolving and devolving over 6000 years until getting so bad that it burns down and a new perfect order emerges to start the cycle anew. In reality tv terms that might mean a cast rebuild. Charli’s queen bee season. And then finally the elders of Valley Village as we call them can be released from their contracts and led to pasture. (What really were we going to do once Schwartz and Sandy’s and Something About Her opened? Accept the future of this show as an Apprentice reboot hosted by Lisa Vanderpump?)
Ariana, most deserving of happiness, can blast off into the stratosphere of made-to-stream Hallmark movies. Sandoval can continue slowly embalming himself with Botox, remembering fame fondly as he drowns in debt. Schwartz can move on, relieved that all those cameras that he was never meant to be in front of are finally gone. Summer can graduate from patio play set to schoolyard, as Scheana and Brock watch over the lids of their Starbucks Ventis, as Ocean and Lala splash in the pool over. And many, many freeway exits over, in Miracle Mile, James can lean over the kitchen island as he does every morning and ask Ally about the stars, who will trace their orbit with a highlighter, and say to him that it all makes sense.