How one cheating scandal could bring reality television back to greatness
If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who watches reality television, you’ve probably heard them talking about the “#Scandoval” from the Bravo show Vanderpump Rules. It has dominated headlines for weeks and completely changed the trajectory of the show’s current performance, with millions more viewers by the season finale than from the season premiere. If you’re still wondering why this matters, let’s break down the scandal that’s capturing the attention of millions of viewers and the impact it could have on reality television.
An Affair Exposed
As season 10 of Vanderpump Rules began filming, cast members Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval had been dating for approximately nine years. They met in 2013 on the show’s second season, which follows the lives of the staff working in restaurants owned by former “Real Housewife” of Beverly Hills, Lisa Vanderpump. Madix and Sandoval formed a close relationship, co-writing a book and even buying a house together.
But everything changed in March 2023 when Sandoval was performing with his band. During the performance, his phone fell out of his pocket and was given to Madix to hold onto. The reality celebrity discovered sexual videos and messages that indicated a months-long affair between her boyfriend and Raquel Leviss, a fellow Rules cast member–and one of Ariana’s closest friends.
The news quickly spread to the Vanderpump cast, crew, and even the public, who quickly dubbed the story “#Scandoval” (a combination of the word scandal and the name Sandoval). Another Vanderpump cast member, Scheana Shay, confronted Leviss after learning of the affair. Leviss then filed a restraining order against her due to reports of Shay punching her in the eye. Supporters of Madix took it upon themselves to review-bomb Sandoval’s restaurant on multiple websites. Most interestingly, Sandoval’s friend and business partner Tom Schwartz has been accused of knowing about the affair since it started in August 2022. Despite the news of the affair breaking over three months ago, no resolutions are in sight.
The Reality of Reality Television
To a casual viewer, this drama might seem standard for a reality show. But #Scandoval has garnered a whole new level of attention that cable reality television hasn’t seen in a long time. The May 17 episode in which viewers saw Ariana discover the affair became one of the most watched and highest-rated episodes ever of Vanderpump Rules and of any Bravo show. Social media platforms have become flooded with constant discussions and memes regarding the scandal, and tabloids are still intensely covering ongoing developments. So why is this cheating story inspiring such a massive response?
Reality television first gained traction in the early 2000s with shows like Survivor (CBS), Master Chef (Fox), and The Bachelor (ABC). Since then, the genre has grown enormously, with hundreds of shows across multiple networks, with several like Bravo and TLC dedicating almost all of their programming to it. What makes reality television distinct is its unscripted nature and the supposition that it is indeed “real.” In other words, there are no actors or scripted “plot points”, but rather real people living their real lives (or in the case of competition shows, real people going through a real competition). The camera and crew just so happen to be there as events unfold. However, it has become clear that reality television has become increasingly more produced–or at least, more obviously so. Early seasons of the Real Housewives franchise followed women living out their real lives (going to charity events, spending time with their families, etc.) In some of the recent seasons, the producers’ hands are much more evident, be it with feeding gossip to the cast members off-camera who then claim a “close friend” told them (who never seem to actually show up on the show) or producers coming into frame to intervene in certain situations.
Social media presence has also changed how the reality television game is played. Cast members can easily interact with their viewers and gauge their perception of them. An episode can premiere on a Tuesday night, and by Wednesday, an offhand comment made during the program has taken the internet by storm. The person who said it can see that fan reaction and use it to tailor how they will act in the following season. Viewers then begin to ask themselves if the person they’re watching is being their authentic self or a version they’ve curated to attract attention.
The Significance of #Scandoval
A man cheating on his longtime girlfriend with one of her close friends would already be juicy on a soap opera or a telenovela. What makes the mass following of #Scandoval so significant is the fact that it’s real. Unlike some other storylines, producers did not force Sandoval to cheat on Madix or for Leviss to betray her friend; the cast acted of their own accord, and the fallout has actual consequences in the “real world.”
Reality television’s best moments are the ones that are the most honest, showing people in their best and worst moments experiencing raw emotions. Production teams could not have planned or staged Teresa Giudice going to jail on Real Housewives of New Jersey or the death of Taylor Armstrong’s husband on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. They did capture the reactions of the people involved and how they went about their lives following such life-changing events, and that is where we find the most memorable moments of reality television. The massive increase in viewership due to #Scandoval indicates that audiences are hungry to see real events happening to real people and will tune in to watch the chaos unfold.
So yes, at the end of the day, #Scandoval is just another relationship on a reality show that went off the deep end. But the staggering uptick in viewership and the visceral fan response could also be the beginning of a return to form for reality television where the genre truly lives up to its name and captures the truth, Sandovals and all.
Part three of the season 10 Vanderpump Rules reunion special airs June 7 on Bravo and is available to stream June 8 on Peacock.
Vanderpump Rules Reunion 2023 Bravo Official Trailer
|Caitlin is an undergraduate at Northwestern University studying film and television. She has worked as a boom operator and assistant producer on two student sets. In her free time, she's doing what she loves most--watching and talking about movies and TV!!|