The “Vanderpump Rules” Scandal is Shakespeare For Millennials

Bravo’s series—like the work of The Bard but where a bro who shaves his forehead can break the hearts of millions—has slowly become about the death of the Millennial dream

When news broke of Vanderpump Rules cast member Tom Sandoval’s months-long affair with castmate Raquel Leviss, a dagger shot through the hearts of the show’s devoted audience, which were soon breaking over the demise of his nine-year-relationship with co-star Ariana Madix; this was a brutal killing of what’s described as the “most stable relationship in Vanderpump Rules history”—and the drama unfolded like some of the best of Shakespeare.

Since March 3, the so-called “Scandoval” has been turning the show’s megafans into fiends, hungry for the next tidbit of hot gossip. The series’ devout followers are now more excited to watch the next reunion episodewhich already has issues around a restraining order on a cast member and possibly a brawl taking place during proceedings—than anything else on TV this year. The hype is deafening and the TV event is being set up as the Super Bowl of Bravo’s reality television universe.

“[The scandal has] all of the elements of a Shakespearian story but [it] is a real-life situation unfolding in front of our eyes,” Sarah Cee, who hosts the Vanderpump Rules Party podcast, tells LAMag. “Every day there is a new revelation or receipt for us to dissect.”

Vanderpump Rules emerged in 2013 as a spin-off of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, following the lives of staff at Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant, SUR, chronicling all the petty drama (who didn’t fold the napkins?!) and some flirting rumors among the young aspiring singers and actors as they drank, fought, and cheated. Sandoval was introduced to the world as a SUR bartender and live-in boyfriend of server Kristen Doute. Villa Blanca bartender Madix made appearances in the first season as Sandoval’s temptress; he left Doute and Madix was added to the season two cast—and don’t pity Doute’s romantic life—she had already cheated on Sandoval. Sure, this season two bombshell was big, but it was just the first of many cheating scandals revealed over the show’s 10 years. Yet none come close to the recent drama. 

Fans have been drawn to the struggles and relatable mediocrity of the cast. In contrast to the typical Real Housewives star, they watch this cast pursue their Hollywood dreams, suffer failures and find success while living in humble apartments similar to their own homes.

“We’ve grown with the cast and watched them hustle as servers and bartenders to now not having to worry about money. We’ve seen them emerge from rent-controlled apartments to mini-mansions,” Cee explains, noting that now in their 30s and 40s, several are back to worrying about affording rent as they divorce and endure the financial issues of adulthood. For Millennials, a generation with less than 50 percent owning property, such struggles are all too real. The audience has grown with and invested in these Angelenos. And it’s Madix, the woman scorned, who happens to be the most relatable cast member. 

“[She’s] always been chill and normal […] in a sea of near-lunatics,” Ben Mandelker, host of the Watch What Crappens podcast, tells LAMag.

Candid about her mental health and body image issues, Madix has consistently been an authentic friend and fierce defender of the underdog—including doe-eyed Leviss, who is often bullied by her castmates. 

“Ariana quietly became an avatar for the audience, and betraying her is like betraying us,” Mandelker explains. 

Raquel Leviss, Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix (Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

Furthermore, Madix and Sandoval’s union represented for many the stability of a healthy relationship. The millennial couple opted not to get married but their relationship contained many elements of traditional marriage. They bought a house together on which Sandoval planned to take out a home equity loan to finance one of his restaurant businesses. And despite rumors of Sandoval’s indiscretions in his late 20s and early 30s (while living with former castmate Kristen Doute in an apartment with questionable electrical wiring), he seemed to have blossomed into a stable partner. Madix trusted Sandoval without question and it appeared as if their relationship was built on a healthy foundation of honesty. It’s shattered now. 

“[This could be] a wake-up call for people in their late 30s and 40s that maybe their relationship and trust aren’t as solid as [they] thought. That if Sandoval can betray Ariana so diabolically like this, anyone can,” Cee says.

It may be a bit grim, but Vanderpump Rules, whether or not the producers intended it, has in many ways become about the death of the Millennial dream.

“[The show portrays] the creeping realization that you can move to L.A. when you’re 26 with every intention to be a famous actor while you live in an apartment where the A/C and microwave can’t run at the same time,” Buzzfeed’s Scaachi Koul tells LAMag.

As Millennials Like It

While Sandoval himself came of age around the Millenium, his temptations and tragic fall are as timeless as one of Shakespeare’s flawed heroes. Ronnie Karam, one of the Watch What Crappens hosts, notes that the series “has its doomed heroes, but their heroes have porn stashes and steroid and pasta addictions instead of mommy issues, like Macbeth.”

The hosts compare the show’s “twisted, entangled relationships” to Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III, adding that “all do craven, paranoid things in pursuit of love and power.” 

Kristin Garth, author of Shakespeare for Sociopaths, points out that during this unraveling scandal, “even a fired Lothario Ghost from the past, Jax Taylor, returns to speak the truth to us about his forehead-shaving bro who was manipulating, betraying all of us.”

Any great Shakespearian plot involves an underdog, love, power, and of course, betrayal. Meek Leviss sought to devote her life to teaching children with developmental differences. When she turned her heel, it was a Shakespearean-level about-face.

“Villainous acts are one thing, but when they’re carried out by heroes and people we trusted, it’s heartbreaking,” Karam said. 

And perhaps the heartbreak and other feelings reality television conjure isn’t respected among critics and peak TV aficionados—but maybe this should be reconsidered. Vanderpump Rules is seen as “unabashedly lowbrow, and like Shakespeare’s works, highbrow audiences consume the art as a dalliance,” Karam tells LAMag. 

But such works can give unmatched insight into human nature, and of course, we bond over the drama of it all—as Karam puts it, one of humanity’s greatest pleasures is to gather with pitchforks and slay monsters. The monsters in these stories just happen to have Oakleys and facial fillers. 

“Almost everything on Bravo is brushed off as mindless reality trash,” Mandelker says. “Occasionally, Vanderpump Rules gets the hi-lo treatment—maybe a tongue-in-cheek write-up in The New Yorker—but generally speaking, people view it as trash. This scandal exposes just how rich a world it is.”

He adds that, like Shakespeare, Vanderpump Rules will be “appreciated greatly after its time.”

“Be they comedies or tragedies, all of Shakespeare’s plays involve pain because when it’s real you can feel it in your own half-healed places,” Garth says, “and Vanderpump Rules is getting all of us there this season.”

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.