Over the course of 10 seasons, Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” has evolved into something no one could possibly have imagined when it premiered in 2013. Initially a chronicle of the personal lives of restauranteur (and “Real Housewife“) Lisa Vanderpump’s young employees, the series is not only the first truly great work of art to emerge from the reality TV genre but one of the most involving and expertly assembled shows on television, period. What began as a soapy account of attractive 20somethings trying to make it in Hollywood (a sort of mashup between the “Real Housewives” franchise and MTV’s “The Hills”) has become a layered, poignant meditation on what it means to grow up, acquiring the breadth and depth of a great novel without abandoning its fizzy pop surface.
Series creator Alex Baskin is the first person to admit that the filmmakers can’t take credit for a lot of the drama that unfolds; they interfere as little as possible in the cast’s lives and just document what’s already happening. Yet there’s no question that the series’ greatness lies not only in luck but in the filmmakers’ unerring eye for knowing how to contextualize and construct its cast’s dramas into riveting stories. In Season 10 Baskin and his team were given both a major opportunity and a major challenge when they realized that Tom Sandoval, who has been on the show since Season 1, was having an affair with younger cast member Raquel — a scandal not only because Tom and his girlfriend Ariana were together for almost 10 years, but because Raquel was close friends with Ariana and often gave her a shoulder to cry on about Tom.
Rewatching the season, clues are rife in the early episode leading up to the “Scandoval” reveal in Episode 13, “Lady and the Glamp.” But most of those episodes had already aired by the time the producers learned what was happening. “Seven episodes had aired, and we were locked on 11,” Baskin told IndieWire, “so most of the episodes stayed completely intact and weren’t impacted by knowing the information.” Baskin and his team were aware of rumors of trouble in Tom and Ariana’s relationship and documented them in the season’s first episodes, but the producers were still shocked when news of the affair broke. “It all seems incredibly obvious after the fact,” Baskin said, “and clearly we were very aware of the speculation. But we still were caught completely off guard.”
While there are many hints throughout the season of what is to come — as well as many retrospectively shocking moments in which Tom and Raquel interact with Ariana and their friends while giving zero indication that they’re sleeping together — the big reveal in Episode 13 is still shocking, and it was shocking even to viewers who learned about the affair in advance online. That’s because editor Jesse Friedman, who is nominated for an Emmy for his work on “Lady and the Glamp,” came up with the most compelling way imaginable to present the information, telling the story primarily in reverse in a manner reminiscent of Christopher Nolan‘s “Memento” or the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal” (a work that has more than a few thematic parallels to this season of “Vanderpump”).
“I found out about everything on March 2, and then on March 3 the story broke all over the internet,” Friedman told IndieWire. Friedman knew that he had to find the most efficient way of explaining what had happened using the footage that he had, no small feat for such a convoluted tale. “We only have 42 or 43 minutes of space to tell the story, and I literally could not sleep until I figured it out.” Friedman didn’t think conventional flashbacks would work, but he landed on an approach when remembering the way he used to practice editing by connecting two VCRs. “I’m a child of the ’80s and ’90s, so the idea of a rewinding and fast-forwarding tape showing us all these pieces of footage that we hadn’t seen popped into my head.”
The ultimate effect of Friedman’s technique is to draw the viewer in more and more each time the image “rewinds” and another layer of the backstory is revealed; the horror of what is unfolding grows increasingly intense because we already know where everything is leading. Yet we don’t really understand the complexities of the situation — or the depth of Tom and Raquel’s deception — until we’ve seen Friedman peel back the layers. Even then, the situation remains mysterious due to the fact that Tom and Raquel are clearly lying about certain aspects of the timeline, as are others on the show who may or may not have been complicit in covering up the affair. “It was interesting because it was pretty clear that they didn’t have their stories straight,” Baskin said. “It wasn’t a function of production trying to create something out of nothing. It was like, oh shit, they got caught, and they do not know what to present to the world at large.”
The remaining episodes in the season, as well as the reunion specials, dig into the genuine pain of “Scandoval” with a relentlessness that owes more to the golden age of John Cassavetes than the conventions of reality TV, to the point that one wonders why Tom, Ariana, and Raquel would even allow the cameras to keep filming. “You know you’re making a good show when it’s a hard show to be on,” Baskin said. “The cast tries to make things off-limits all the time. But there’s a lot of group accountability, and they will not let anyone else in the group not put something on the show. The idea is, ‘Well, I had to go through something difficult on the show, so guess what? I’m not going to let you paint a phony picture.’” That said, as the crew works on Season 11 it’s an open question whether or not Raquel will return (Baskin confirmed that Tom is on the upcoming season).
That’s just one of many questions related to where “Vanderpump Rules” can go from here, as several of its core relationships — not just Tom and Ariana’s but all the friendships that spiderweb out from them — seem to have been irrevocably destroyed and Season 10 as a whole felt like the culmination of dozens of series-long storylines. “Obviously this whole ‘Scandoval’ thing is a major reset,” Baskin said. “We’re deep in production and the pieces don’t magically fit back together. We deal with the real fallout from this. You know, our best-laid plans are laid to waste all the time. They’re completely disturbed by what happens in real life. That’s the wild ride of doing unscripted: We have so much less control than anybody would like to attribute to us.”