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an investigation (of sorts)

4 min

science, reality tv, cats..sounds about right

In this newsletter: when a black-market cat drug meet COVID-19, a video I’m pretty proud of, and an extended series of thoughts about Vanderpump Rules.

I have been vaguely debating setting up a whole separate newsletter that is just about my week in reality TV for a while now. I haven’t done it yet because I still have yet to truly treat this newsletter with the respect that it deserves. (Deserves is a strong word. Let’s go with “the basic acknowledgment it requires.”) So I’m combining both of those needs into one with an extended series of thoughts about Vanderpump Rules that will probably extend over multiple newsletters. Because I know that is not everyone signed up for with this newsletter, I’m shuffling things around so that all the science reads and self-promo stuff comes first, and all the Important Overthinking about reality TV goes last.

A Recent Science Read

There’s obviously a lot of writing going on about COVID-19, and it is overwhelming and tough to process just what is good and useful and will stand the test of daily twitter discourse and failures of leadership on multiple levels. This article, by Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic, will not help you understand the pandemic any better, but it will teach you about how COVID-19 relates to everything right now, including a black market drug to treat feline infectious peritonitis (or FIP). What I found most interesting about this story is the underlying story of how drugs get studied and approved for use in animals, and how this can create complications when those same drugs might be effective in humans.

A Thing I’ve Made

Why I’m Excited to Host Crash Course Organic Chemistry (YouTube): I think the title explains most of it…I’m hosting Crash Course Organic Chemistry! I’m excited! But this is also mostly a thing about my family and the weird ways that organic chemistry seems to have been constantly following me through my own life thanks to them.

Currently Reading

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones: Nicole Sweeney and I will be discussing this book over on her channel on June 13th at 5 pm ET. I’ve been really appreciating the way Quinones weaves together historical and personal narratives that cover everything from rancho culture to medical advertising to American economic progress (and stagnation).

Investigating what it means to be a fan of Vanderpump Rules (Part 1 of ????)

Okay, so now it’s time to get into the modern classic: Vanderpump Rules. First, for the uninitiated: Vanderpump Rules is part of the Bravo family of reality tv shows. It started as a spinoff of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, following the employees of a West Hollywood restaurant called SUR (which stand for Sexy Unique Restaurant, because of course).

The first three seasons of Vanderpump Rules were—and I don’t say this lightly—a masterpiece. There were twists and turns that paid off in ways you would dismiss from fictional stories as too unrealistic. And its core was this simultaneously charismatic-yet-unlikable cast of wannabe actors, models, and musicians who bartended and waitressed (and fucked each other over in new and creative ways) while waiting for their big break.

The show ended up being their big break. There are serious articles written about them! They were in Vogue! There are entire podcasts dedicated to them! Famous actors and actresses talk about them! And all that success has been simultaneously the best and worst thing for the show. Seasons 4 and onward have been caught in this tension where the cast is now too famous to work at the restaurant that is also technically the reason they are on the show. But the show, which was ostensibly about the restaurant, isn’t about that restaurant anymore. It’s about this cast, and so sometimes we watch them go through the motions of waitressing. Others manage to extricate themselves from the SUR-world while still maintaining tenuous connections just to stay on the show. But what we don’t get to see (or at least didn’t, until more recently) is any sense that these people—who started the show wanting to be famous—are now actually kind of famous.

Fame has given this cast everything they want, but with varying degrees of substance. Some have managed to successfully parlay it into restaurant ventures or books. Others have been less successful in their endeavors.

And it’s weird to not see that explicitly laid out in the show because that fame has become like an extra cast member that no one can acknowledge, constantly interfering and causing conflict and yet unnameable.

And so like many a reality tv show, Vanderpump Rules has in some ways become about the show itself—it’s about these people who have wanted to be famous, and who have actually gotten famous, but not famous enough to completely separate themselves from the thing that made them famous in the first place. I don’t know how any of their income (which seems built largely on appearance fees, sponcon, and the money they get from Bravo itself) actually breaks down, but it seems clear that they’re in a strange place where they’re financially successful in a scheme that incentivizes them to be publicly tied together even when they no longer want to be.

More than any other cast on Bravo I think, this is a cast that—as a group—has ended up having their lives built around the show. And that in turn has created its own strange fandom. To be fair, pretty much every fandom is strange in its own unique-yet-universal way. And if you’d caught me about 15 years ago, this newsletter would probably be about the weirdness of being a Harry Potter fan.

But right now, I’m eight seasons into a show about a bunch of waiters who wanted to become famous, and then they did, and I’m convinced that no one hates this show the way that fans of this show hate it. And I guess I just feel like processing some of the different sides of that. To be honest, I haven’t fully thought this through (seems about right for the show), but so far I think this is going to include ventures into the world (and occasional drama) of Vanderpump Rules podcasts, what fan entitlement looks like when you’re talking about reality tv, the inane love of weddings in this cast, and maybe even that one time I went to SUR with my friends. Idk we’re in the middle of a pandemic, these are decidedly not the best days of our lives, so why the fuck not?

If you have thoughts about Vanderpump Rules, you can reply to this because I am here for your feelings.


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