Mea culpa: I heralded Vanderpump Rules as the greatest drama on TV at exactly the wrong time.
Back on November 7, 2016 — a simpler time, literally a day before disaster struck — I wrote, "For a show about the lives of waitresses and bartenders at Lisa Vanderpump's restaurant, Vanderpump Rules is surprisingly challenging. It's a fun and frothy reality show that, between bitchy bon mots, doubles as a meditation on fidelity and trust." This was based on the show's previous, rather ingenious structure of centering a season on a single question of infidelity and exploring the ways in which the characters responded to that.
At first, it looked like season five would follow suit, with Jax Taylor lobbing a wild accusation that his girlfriend, Brittany Cartwright, had slept with their friend Kristen Doute. Fortunately for a furious Brittany, the rumor was pretty quickly laid to rest. Unfortunately for Vanderpump Rules, the show was left rudderless, and failed to right the ship until 15 episodes into the 21-episode season.
Season five of Vanderpump Rules, which decided telling the story of Tom Schwartz and Katie Maloney's inevitable wedding was a good idea, was inarguably a misfire. This wasn't a small dip in quality like BoJack Horseman from season two to three; Vanderpump Rules fell off a cliff at the same time as Lisa's other series, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, was suddenly making waves.
It's not over yet for SUR Restaurant's sexy, catty staff, with Monday night's finale and the three-part reunion still to come. But let's take a moment now to look toward the future. Here's how the show can fix itself in season six.
Never center on Schwartz and Katie again
Not every member of a reality TV ensemble can handle the weight of a narrative. Stassi Schroeder, Jax Taylor, Kristen Doute — these are the superhumans who have shouldered whole Vanderpump Rules seasons on their backs. Katie and Schwartz, two relatively lovable deuteragonists from previous seasons, are not superhumans.
Left without an infidelity accusation to hang their hat on, the story editors turned to these two fiancés planning and executing their wedding for most of the season's drama. Unfortunately, the development consisted mostly of watching the two tear at each other in drunken fights and fretting over the cost of a wedding that Bravo would inevitably pay for off-screen. All this did was make their impending marriage seem like a bad idea — except in real life, they were already married. All the story editors were doing was airing painful footage of newlyweds' pre-wedding behavior. This would be easier to swallow if the crux of the season wasn't "Will Katie and Schwartz get married?" — again, a question we already knew the answer to because of real-life events.
Schwartz and Katie crumbled under the pressure of carrying the season, but more problematically, the story editors gambled on a lose-lose storyline. This should never happen again.
Make major cast changes
The only Vanderpump Rules main cast member to ever leave was Stassi Schroeder. She left for half of season four, then recurred for the rest of it and was made full-time again, presumable because she — and the show — realized exactly how necessary she was.
Some of the rest of the cast, however, are less necessary. Katie and Schwartz could probably stand to demote themselves to recurring status at this point, while Ariana Madix, refreshingly sharp as she is, has seemed bored of being there for the last two seasons. Her boyfriend Tom Sandoval hasn't really added anything significant story-wise for a while, although he could be the star of next season if Lisa's recent pondering about partnering with him on a new bar bears fruit. And let's not get started on James Kennedy and Lala Kent, who showed their asses this season and should make less-than-graceful exits.
Really, for season six, all you need is Stassi, Jax, Kristen and Scheana Marie. Then, throw in some new blood, and let the show evolve. No Real Housewives franchise managed to keep the same cast for their first five seasons; you need reshuffles to keep the chemistry fresh and vibrant.
If a better story surfaces, switch focus
Speaking of Scheana: Can you believe we're only getting to Scheana's divorce from her husband Michael Shay at the end of this season? What have we been doing pondering the question of an inevitable marriage when a very real, very surprising divorce was happening in real time?
Clearly, the Scheana/Shay drama happened just as filming was wrapping, and the Vanderpump Rules crew already had a lot in the can. The problem is, outside of a few good episodes (the New Orleans arc most crucially), most of what they had was filler at best and nearly unwatchable at worst.
When something as seismic as Scheana's divorce — which seemingly includes accusations of cheating and theft at the very least — takes place, it's time to reshuffle the cards. Bravo should have known that they didn't have a real season on their hands, but they could have had one. Had they condensed the rest of their footage into fewer episodes, used the Scheana/Shay divorce as the mid-season climax, then used the rest of the season to deal with the fall-out, season five of Vanderpump Rules could have been genuinely compelling.
Embrace the show's most meta elements
It may have been kind of a dud season, but I don't think I've ever seen something on Vanderpump Rules quite as compelling as when SUR hostess Katie O'Malley tried out for a waitstaff job. It was just a one-episode, two-scene story, but that short and sweet plot was a veritable tiramisu of subtext, with layers upon layers of rich detail.
"When I'm looking to hire someone, I want them to come in with confidence," Lisa Vanderpump says as she makes this new Katie audition by pretending to serve Lisa herself. Lisa — who is an executive producer of this show — demands big personalities who know their scripts, a test Katie fails when she doesn't know SUR's menu. It's fascinating how heavily Lisa is leaning on the fourth wall here; she never comes out and says Katie's auditioning for Vanderpump Rules by auditioning for a server spot, but it's evident.
Some of the best Vanderpump Rules episodes have played with the line between reality and "reality." Season two's "Rich People Annoy Me" featured the waitstaff serving as color commentators on a dinner scene from that week's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which played out right before their eyes. The more Vanderpump Rules plays up this kind of meta winking — and the less it expects us to think things that have already happened in real life maybe won't — the better and smarter the show will be.
Vanderpump Rules' season five finale airs Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern.