It’s been hailed by the New Yorker and the New York Times, routinely delivers millions of high-income viewers per week, and counts celebrities such as Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence among its rabid fans.
And it’s a reality show about the wait staff at an L.A. restaurant.
“Vanderpump Rules,” which airs its season six finale Monday night, has become the unlikeliest pop culture sensation since Susan Boyle or the O.J Simpson resurgence. The premise is so simple it sounds, frankly, stupid: A gaggle of young waiters and bartenders date, mate and fight with each other as they ostensibly chase work as actors or models or musicians or stylists.
Overseeing it all is Lisa Vanderpump, a reality television veteran of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and owner of SUR, the establishment that employs her cast. (SUR is an acronym for, epically, Sexy Unique Restaurant.)
“My face and my body,” says resident villain Jax Taylor. “These are my two best assets.” Throughout the seasons, Taylor has had three nose jobs, a man boob reduction, and has purchased breast implants for a girlfriend as a thank-you for moving from Kentucky to L.A.
“People put a lot of effort into the way they look, and it shows,” says Tom Sandoval, a bartender who has helped introduce the portmanteau “mactor” (model-slash-actor) into the lexicon, and who is regularly filmed shaving his forehead. “I put even more effort in, so it doesn’t show.”
Such inverse vanity is but one of the many appeals, as is Vanderpump’s obscene wealth in contrast to her servers — or SURvers, as they are known in show parlance. But what accounts for the show’s resonance isn’t just a winking self-awareness of reality-show tropes or escapism in the Trump era; “Vanderpump Rules” premiered in January 2013, well before political overwhelm. For all its artifice —and all reality TV is, at some level, artifice — the show captures two very real, very new phenomena.
The first is millennial stasis, economic and emotional. This is the generation most affected by the Great Recession, wage stagnation, the inability to move up or out. According to a recent study published by Quartz, the number of 25-29 year olds living with parents or grandparents in 2016 was at its highest in 75 years — 33%.
As self-appointed den mother, Vanderpump tends this group of strivers who have, in the show’s universe, failed to succeed. While the conceit is by now threadbare — sophisticated viewers know her first-season servers are now full-fledged reality stars — the emotional stagnation on display feels real. Almost every female cast member has ill-advised forearm tattoos or lip injections. They have almost all wastefully purchased $5,000 Chanel bags or are dating men who treat them poorly. One is married to a blackout drunk. Another self-soothes drinking from a baby bottle.
“I’m on a very low dose of my anti-anxiety medication,” 28-year-old Lala Kent explained on one episode. “So when I do feel like my heart’s beating a little fast, I need my bubba.”
The men aren’t any more independent, and seem to be manifesting another socioeconomic upheaval: the crisis of masculinity. Today, women are far more likely to out-earn men, or have a higher level of education, or support their family. In his 2016 book “The Future of Men: Masculinity in the 21st Century,” author Jack Myers explored what he has called our “historic moment in gender relations” and the ensuing fear among “men who are feeling abandoned by the thousands of years of history that defined what it meant to be a real man: to be strong; to be a provider; to be in authority; to be the ultimate decision maker; and to be economically, educationally, physically and politically dominant.”
No recent pop cultural moment captured this better than Season 3, Episode 4 of “Vanderpump Rules,” in which Jax gets a nose job and begs pathetically for drugs while Tom Schwartz, an underemployed male model, has a panic attack during his very first bartending shift. Lisa Vanderpump calls Schwartz “a pussy” before offering a disquisition on the state of modern masculinity.
“I’m not sure that I understand these young American men,” she says, speaking directly to the camera. “One’s got a nose job purely for vanity and the other’s run away from his job like a scared little bunny, and then they’ve both got eyebrows like Greta Garbo.”
The show is not without its flaws: The cast is overwhelmingly white. The new addition of a transgender hostess feels a bit cynically timed. It’s increasingly difficult to believe the cast members live in crappy apartments when Taylor, for one, has said that if he saves his “VPR” salary wisely, he’ll be set for life.
But these are real-world concerns. At this moment, in the reality-TV constructs and confines of “Vanderpump Rules,” there is no more soothing place to be.