/ On Vanderpump Rules, and the undoing of Lala Kent and James Kennedy. /
It isn’t very clear what Andy Cohen is up to right now. Add Lisa Vanderpump to that mix, while we’re at it, the former having crawled so far up the restaurant maven’s ass, I’d even believe they were testing out new skin suit technology for whatever Avatar sequel James Cameron eventually cooks up.
From the looks of it, I’d say they just committed murder–of the television sort.
The reunions to Vanderpump Rules season nine were squished together like Tom Schwartz’s eyebrows whenever he gets really upset. I’d guess Bravo believes that nobody even watches this silly little show anymore. What harm was there in bookending a consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday time slot with the measly two part reunion? It’s not like they pushed out much else but a new episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, adrift in midweek primetime sea all on it’s lonesome.
Now, Bravo has made a bothersome habit of experimenting with the format of its shows on the off-brand Real Housewives spin-offs like Vanderpump Rules. Sometimes these experiments stick, and viewers see them trickle into the editing styles of the mainline series. A cursory glance, and I’d chalked up the baffling viewing order of the reunions to just that–experiments, tricks, traps. Until I actually watched the things.
For those who, at the advice of their therapists and loved ones, skipped this season of Vanderpump Rules, allow me: Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute viciously harassed a Black co-worker off of reality television. These schemes included, at times, the police, and allegations of theft and robbery. None of this was true, but it was enough to traumatize Faith Stowers, while Stassi and Kristen ran around the podcast and Twitter circuits, gleefully alluding to their war crimes. They were fired. Jax–no first name, just Jax–and new wife Brittany were also out. He too had participated in the harassment, but no matter. He’d left the show because he was extremely famous and important and also a future ESPN broadcast star.
Returning for the new season were: Tom and Tom, Ariana, Katie, DJ James Kennedy, future pediatric nurse and current Instagram model Raquel, Scheana Shay, a man named Brock, like the Pokemon gym leader, Lala, and Charli. There were two other men who didn’t cross over from the previous season, also embroiled in separate racism scandals, but they are neither important or interesting enough to spend much more time on. A bare bones cast in all, fit for what was essentially an extended funeral special for everyone involved. Including the network. Don’t worry, they’re not off the hook either.
With the once broke 20-something friends now in shambles, and having grown up into 30-something land owners, the season wasn’t exactly set up for success. Committed to its original cast, no matter how far they strayed from the original premise, Bravo pushed on through seasons eight and nine with increasingly bizarre plot beats. Sure, they attempted to edge in a new core audience with a stable of hapless waitstaff last season, but only one of its newest additions stuck around: Charli. Besides, they had too much to contend with from the old guard, who had retired their aprons and flimsy little cocktail waitress costumes for Shein and private jets. Even still, that old guard held onto screen time viciously, inserting themselves into bizarre “work” relationships at a place they no longer worked: DJing parties, hosting book launches, staging photo shoots. At least Tom and Tom opened a restaurant with Lisa Vanderpump, however cursed an establishment TomTom might be. It gave them a purpose, and by extension, it afforded Ariana and Katie a free pass to exist. (Or get ate out in the back of a BMW while the other watched.)
Enter Lala Kent and DJ James Kennedy, emblematic of all the perils Vanderpump Rules yet faced.
When she was introduced in season four, Scheana Shay and Stassi described Lala as a mistress and whore who read Ayn Rand. She was the wild child, younger even than the still young cast, who freely took her top off in public and flirted with just about anyone in the vicinity. She made fast friends with bad boy misogynist James, who spit on his then girlfriend Kristen, and called her a slut in public. While he ragged on Lala’s personal decisions, her Range Rover was hers, or so she claimed, until a pesky little rumor circulated that a powerful film producer had leased it for her. No matter, because her force of will was stronger than Scheana’s spray tan, and she persisted, all the way to the private jet of that same film executive. His name was Randall Emmett, and he still most famous for having the worst rated movie in Rotten Tomatoes history.
Lala and James were by no means the downfall of this once television titan. The original squad of permanently inebriated layabouts had that handled amongst themselves long before she boarded at Salt Lake City airport for a red eye to WeHo. But her eventual upgrade to Gucci flip flop wielding private jet enjoyer was certainly the catalyst.
As of season nine, Lala was still not married to Randall, who she now had a kid with. The self-appointed “leader” of the cast, she wielded her newfound access to credit cards like a club. Trips on said private jet were frequent, and her stable of assistants and nannies multiplied at an astonishing clip. She even made the fatal mistake of lording her relationship with Randall over her cast mates head. By any estimate she could think of, hers was the only honest and good man in Los Angeles.
Until he wasn’t!
Power is an elusive beast, and it requires a finer instrument than blunt force trauma to wield correctly, especially on television. Bravo, by most metrics, believed Vanderpump Rules to be the darling of its roster. For a time it was. While it bubbled under for its first few seasons, season four saw a stunning upturn. Its cast had evolved beyond their waitstaff aspirations to a full spread in Vogue. Soon, they starred in commercials for movies and products, edging out the Real Housewives progenitors. Workplaces buzzed with water cooler gossip, as if it was the new Friends. Their follower counts skyrocketed, book deals were inked, restaurants were built, and Bravo’s primetime price tag went up up and up.
However, at the apex of Vanderpump Rule’s cultural cache, the world changed. A pandemic wreaked havoc on population centers like Los Angeles and beyond. Protests erupted in the streets, against police brutality. For a summer, those same streets cried out in unison for abolition, the echoes of those voices permanently etched into the fabric of this country. Concurrently, long ignored secrets re-emerged from the depths, like Stassi and Kristen’s harassment of former co-worker Faith, or their racist tweets online, or general behavior towards people of color on and off the show. This scrutiny also visited every other property Bravo owned. Turmoil at the network ensued, as its stable of once television darlings was revealed to be a rats nest of Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, pandemic deniers, racists, and even pigs with violent records. To this very day, the upheaval continues, but it’s undeniable the dramatic shift 2020 brought to the reality television industry at large.
To rectify a small portion of the damage, Bravo aired specials with its Black talent on topics ranging from social justice to police brutality. Behind the scenes, rumors sprang up that some of its most visible talent had took the network to task over its lack of equity amongst Black-owned production companies, diluting the waters of their public facing initiatives. The details of this internal turmoil were later documented in Vulture.
Amidst all this: Kristen, Stassi, Jax, Brittany, and some other guys made an exit. Bravo stalled for a summer, and then stalled some more. Looking back, I’m sure the network wishes it’d kept stalling.
Season nine was in no way anticipated. Despite very real transgressions, Stassi, Kristen, and Jax formed the engine of what propelled this silly little show forward. Its most iconic moments have them as the centerpiece, and the memorable quotes can all be attributed to Stassi, or Jax. Evil, but necessary for the format they’d built over eight seasons with the original cast. Were Bravo a savvier operator, they’d have put down the club to pick up a surgeon’s knife moving into season nine. Flush the whole show and start fresh. Instead, their great folly was in believing anybody cared about Tom and Tom and Katie and Ariana and Raquel and Scheana, or even Stassi and Jax and Kristen, all that much. James and Lala too, god forbid. Only a complete jerk-off would hang a show about struggling waiters and barkeep slash J.C. Penney catalogue models on the two’s bony shoulders.
Rather than watch a group of people balance night shifts and pool parties, season nine made a strong pivot into pure lifestyle content. Most everyone owned a house by this point, save Scheana Shay and new man Brock, bless her heart. That lady just feels right in an apartment complex on the busiest intersection of Fairfax. Raquel, who visibly loathed James to any random passerby, agreed to marry the little goblin man. Lala had just given birth, as did Scheana, and maybe Tom and Tom were to open a new restaurant. It all felt as if it missed something–oh right! PUMP, SUR, and TomTom were still around too, Villa Blanca long since sacrificed to the pandemic gods. (Arson was out of the question, it seems.) But nobody worked at any of them, except when newbie Charli and Raquel would play cocktail waitress dress-up for the camera.
And so producers needed a new jet propulsion engine. Perhaps because Lala’s man rented a jet, they figured her an obvious stand-in. Her personality did always clash with her cast mates, who flitted in and out of her good graces season by season. Likewise, Scheana’s new man had a restraining order against him, domestic violence charges, and unpaid child support. What better advocate for chaos than the Give Them Lala founder, who’s makeup company didn’t really take up too much time in her schedule anyway.
The plan went like this: Each episode, Lala would find increasingly bizarre ways to question–rightfully, I might add–why Brock’s ex had put a restraining order against him, or why the man hadn’t seen his kids in years. Her man would never treat her like this, Lala claimed, despite having done essentially the same thing to his ex-wife while he had cheated on her with the new Spokesperson for the Campaign against Scheana. Other cast members would drift in and out of their increasingly hostile dynamic, aimless, except for a brief storyline about James and Raquel’s excessively doomed engagement. Tom and Tom tried to provide background support for both. They’re latest restaurant scheme was a frustrating, if successful, distraction from the gradual undoing of the core cast’s dynamics. Tom even staged an exorbitantly expensive fake-Coachella for James and Raquel’s surprise engagement, complete with circuits performers and rides and fireworks
Thank god he was no longer on that meager bartender’s wage.
By the season’s end, Lala was sure in her rock-solid relationship with a man who couldn’t even change the diapers. Despite revealing, on camera, that he physically assaulted his ex-wife, Brock was also still around, the reunion now primed to offer some small amount of conflict. Then the photos came out. Between the end of season nine’s official production, and the reunion taping, Randall Emmett was exposed as a serial cheater and philanderer. I say serial because his first round of cheating and philandering was already well documented on television, in his relationship with Lala.
In a twist, Lala was not able to attend the reunion in person, meaning she’d have to face Scheana and Andy Cohen over Zoom. With the rug pulled out from under her, she revealed to her cast mates that her entire relationship had been an elaborate ruse. Randall was essentially a ghost in their relationship, constantly on his phone, never home, and barely spending an ounce of time with their newborn. For the entire first hour of the two night special, she detailed all the little ways her on-screen personality was a constructed misrepresentation of her off-screen life. Despite the Gucci and private jets and lavish vacations and offers of investment, the man’s money was essentially borrowed. She found him disgusting in bed, and lazy. And despite this, she could not believe he would cheat–again.
Her cast mates, and Andy Cohen, attempted to find some small measure of control over the situation. Scheana pointed out her hypocrisy, while Cohen snarked that he could have production assemble a clip package of all the contradictions she’d said to them since she clicked “Join Meeting” on Zoom.
Meanwhile, DJ James Kennedy had just experienced his own undoing. Not minutes into the reunion, he and ex-fiance Raquel revealed they had actually faked their relationship for the better part of the season. Fake might be a touch harsh, but both were well aware their issues were near-irreconcilable. Raquel especially, who said she’d had nightmares of their wedding day, but hoped the two could break up off-camera, once reunion filming had wrapped and they had the spring to go their separate ways. Instead, they called it off the day of the reunion, in front of all their peers, Raquel unable to spend another second in his presence. She even gave the ring back on camera, while her castmates looked on in horror, shell-shocked that the two had pulled off such an elaborate ruse.
For his part, James seemed an unwilling participant in his relationship’s demise. Despite his outlandish sexism and blatant hatred of the women in his life, he said he’d gone sober for Raquel. He was even willing to forgive the fact she’d hesitated to call him her soulmate. Raquel, too nice to the little goblin man, maintained the breakup was a mutual arrangement.
And so James and Lala sat there, hounded by the monumental weight of their combined falsehoods, a million miles apart. By all accounts, they were primed to take over the show from the soon-to-be AARP card carriers, once the previous lot had permanently sequestered themselves in a Valley Village tract development. Over the years, they’d even edged out the original cast for more primetime spots in the opening credits, and annual cast photo. But the entire premise of a “primetime slot” in the opening credits was exactly what staggered this show going into season nine. James and Lala, for all their faults, were doomed to fail before they’d even started.
In almost every retrospective and review of its first season, critics, universally praised Vanderpump Rules’ almost subversive approach to reality television, at least for the 2010s. Abandoning almost every precept of past shows on the network before it, the cast were blatantly cartoonish, and messy, and broke. Bravo had even introduced it with a plot line about a lead character cheating with the husband of a Real Housewives star, who later left her for LeAnn Rimes. The entire premise was a risk, and it paid off, hailed by many as the spiritual successor to the legacy The Hills had left for Los Angeles.
Clumsy, and futile. Nobody had learned from the mistakes of that same successor. Along with dazzling success came a dazzling cast, who now drove luxury cars and owned homes in one of this countries most expensive cities. A cast who grew into exactly the types of people everyone had grown tired of on television. Ironic, in hindsight, because it wasn’t even the widespread scandals that drove viewers away.
It’s that nobody cared to watch the whole thing implode.
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