Many fans of Vanderpump Rules have to admit the show was in a slump before Season 10 of the series, and while many hoped it would be reinvigorated, it was absolutely shocking how "Scandoval," Tom Sandoval cheating on Ariana Madix with Rachel Leviss, completely took over pop culture discourse for months.
If we go back to the very beginning of Vanderpump Rules, our first introduction to these cast of characters was through a cheating scandal, specifically Scheana Shay having an affair with Eddie Cibrian while he was married to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Brandi Glanville. There's certainly an argument to be made that without infidelity, there would be no Vanderpump Rules.
That pattern continued throughout the series, with Jax Taylor cheating on girlfriends Stassi Schroeder and his now wife Brittany Cartwright, Kristen Doute cheating on Sandoval with Taylor, Tom Schwartz cheating on his now ex-wife Katie Maloney. The list goes on.
So given how things have unfolded for years on the show, what made this cheating scandal so significant, that it piqued the interest of the series fanbase as well as brought in people who had never even watched an episode of Vanderpump Rules in the past?
'There was a clear winner and the clear winner is Ariana'
According to media and cultural studies expert (and Vanderpump Rules watcher) Dr. Tamar Salibian, part of the appeal is connected to how long Sandoval and Madix have been together, and how "personable" Madix is on and off the show.
"Despite being accused by her ex, by Sandoval, of being cold or abrasive or condescending, I think her character as presented on the series is one that is personable and relatable, and at the same time, in some ways aspirational," Salibian told Yahoo Canada. "I think Ariana really resonated as not just a character, because reality TV is a construction, it's produced, but also as a human being, as an individual."
"I think, in the same vein of that, Tom Sandoval's midlife crisis, for lack of a better term, might be very relatable to people, ... not necessarily in a positive way. ... We've either experienced that or we've seen it with friends or family who have to deal with somebody like that. It's a very wonderfully crafted play as sort of escapist fantasy that's rooted in so many things that are very real in people's lives."
"What made this different was that there was a clear winner and the clear winner is Ariana," Dr. Evie Psarras, a celebrity and social media expert (and Vanderpump Rules viewer), told Yahoo Canada in a separate interview. "She was a ride or die girlfriend for Tom Sandoval, never cheated, was always down for him."
"The difference between him and Ariana, and him and Kristen Doute, was that ... they had a very different type of relationship. They didn't purport to love each other. So I think why people got so mad, this is why I got so mad, I was a Tom Sandoval fan, ... but it's that he pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. He truly made you think that he was a changed man, .... because he was so in love with Ariana that he would never do something like that."
There's also a connection to more "real life" elements of the cast members that adds a layer of intrigue for the show. That includes things like Madix suing Sandoval over the home they bought together, which we see unfolding when episodes aren't even airing.
"What I have always said about Vanderpump Rules, ... you literally cannot write this sh-t," Psarras said. "They literally do go live their lives, make these mistakes, air it out for people to watch."
"So I feel like what 'Scandoval' showed is, here is what was actually going on behind the scenes. It was even juicier than anything they were showing on the show, at the time, ... which I think makes it so intriguing for people. ... It wasn't all fake. It's not all manufactured. This is real people, real life, and of course you can't look away from it."
'For it to be super successful and really resonant for viewers, it requires a level of vulnerability'
When it comes to the backlash that Sandoval and Leviss received, with many people being very vocal about their support for Madix, Salibian stressed that while reality TV is a "heightened" version of people's lives, these individuals also have to show some amount of accountability, and in turn vulnerability, to the audience.
"It's like creating a fiction out of real lives and real people," Salibian said. "For it to be super successful and really resonant for viewers, it requires a level of vulnerability, and I think a lot of the reality TV characters try to perform that vulnerability and perform that authenticity."
"The thing that stands out to me is that I don't think Rachel understands that. I don't think she has been able to either perform or be fully real. ... From my perspective, she's not a full-on villain, like a Sandoval. She's not someone that you aspire to be or be like, or be friends with. ... You don't get a sense of the depth or the layers to the person in the same way that we have seen with other cast members."
For example, on Vanderpump Rules we saw a conversation between Shay and Sandoval, where Shay is getting very emotional, very vulnerable, crying about what happened to Madix. Shay also expressed her emotions about coming to terms with the fact that Sandoval, who she saw as a friend as well, would do that to someone she thought he cared about.
That was amplified further during the reunion when we got a look into Sandoval seemingly "coaching" Leviss on what to say.
But now Leviss has also started her own podcast, which hasn't been particularly in line with being remorseful and comes across, as Psarras described it, as Leviss trying to "fight back in."
"She still doesn't know how to talk about the affair from a new perspective," Psarras said.
An added element to this, which in some respects has given Leviss a bit of a redemption arc, is that Sandoval has continued to be given entertainment opportunities following "Scandoval," including joining the cast of Special Force: World's Toughest Test, but that seemingly hasn't been the same for Leviss.
"I feel like, yes, Rachel did get dragged through the mud, I don't think social media is kind to any reality star, I just wish that Tom Sandoval got it a little bit more," Psarras said. "He was still offered new shows, ... he was still making money off of scandal, and Rachel wasn't."
"That's just the typical misogyny that you see come out of the entertainment industry. That just tracks, unfortunately."
Did 'Scandoval' go too far?
While Andy Cohen has stated that the reactions to the "Scandavol" drama got "out of control," the question really is: Have people gone too far with the negativity towards Sandoval and Leviss? Or is that just part of the construct of the reality TV machine?
"There is a lot of harm inflicted from folks behind the screen," Salibian said. "They've got their keyboards and they can talk sh-t all they want to on social media and beyond, however, that is something that ... comes with the buy-in to this machine."
"You sign up to be on one of these shows and in some ways you're signing your life away, and I think many cast members cannot break out of [that]. ... In terms of overreacting to this particular scandal, overreacting to that season, what do these producers expect? They've created the monster and now they have to navigate the way the monster is received, in some regard. ... There's 10 times more footage shot than is included in a reality show and so while it's real, ... it's also highly produced. It's an illusion and it's carefully constructed."
Salibian also stated that the response to this Vanderpump Rules scandal is also informed by the culture in which the show exists.
"The 'aggression' we see is not a standalone (by the cast, by fans online), but it is instead something that is simultaneously informing and being informed by the culture around us," Salibian stated.
'Women empowerment' or Tom Sandoval redemption arc coming in Season 11?
As we move into Season 11 of Vanderpump Rules (which will be available to stream on Hayu at 9:00 p.m. ET in Canada), Psarras hopes this season will come with more "women empowerment."
"I would hope that we would get a season that was more women empowerment, with Ariana and Katie finally running sh-t and being vindicated, especially Katie, ... after years of being married to Tom Schwartz who just never cared about her, or treated her right," Psarras said.
"Bravo has a tendency to ... really want to redeem characters so that they can keep them coming back for the next season. So I feel like we might get a little bit of that with Tom Sandoval. I feel like he's irredeemable, but I feel like they're going to try to spin some sort of narrative that puts him in a different light. I expect to see it. I don't expect to fall for it."
Whatever way Vanderpump Rules plays out for Season 11, it's sure to continue to draw a lot of people in moving forward.
In terms of why people continue to be interested in reality TV, Psarras stressed that a lot of it comes down to the fact that "people want to watch so that they can learn about themselves."
"You want to see real people, like you, in situations that could possibly come up in your life, and you watch them do it and react in those scenarios, and you learn about yourself. What you would or wouldn't do. Or you learn new ways of doing things, or not doing things," Psarras said.
"At the end of the day, when you see something like this unfold, you're putting yourself in that situation and opening up a ton of conversations with people in your life about what you would do. ... Human beings wanting to learn about the human condition and what we do when we face certain emotional turmoil. That's what did it. It just hit home for so many people, even if you've never been in that situation."