Column: The very L.A. lessons at the heart of reality TV smash 'Vanderpump Rules'

West Hollywood, CA - May 23: Reality TV's "Vanderpump Rules" stars Ariana Madix, left, and Katie Maloney, are photographed in what will soon be their open restaurant, "Something About Her," in West Hollywood, CA, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The two reality stars have been embroiled in a cheating scandal with castmate Tom Sandoval, with fans dubbing the chaos, "Scandoval." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Reality TV's "Vanderpump Rules" stars Ariana Madix, left, and Katie Maloney, photographed at their then-unopened restaurant, Something About Her, in 2023. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For 11 seasons, Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” has followed the triumphs, tragedies and tomfooleries of a group of Hollywood 20-something nobodies who became 30-something wannabes as the show became a reality TV juggernaut.

Never heard of it? Maybe it's for the better — but you've been missing out on an unlikely morality play about who makes it and who doesn't in the eternal heartbreak that is Los Angeles.

It started as a series about the wait staff at SUR, a loud, overpriced West Hollywood restaurant whose star dish is fried goat cheese balls that aren't as appetizing as they sound. The protagonists, only one of them a native Angeleno (if you count West Covina), slung cocktails and delivered dishes while pursuing their entertainment dreams — and each other.

“Vanderpump Rules” stuck out above its fellow L.A.-based reality shows because it created its own version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — a self-contained world that saw the rest of the universe through its limited prism. Fans breathlessly followed the marriages, divorces, flings and affairs of the millennial cast on the small screen and debated the plot twists online. In real life, they flocked to businesses that figured in the show — SUR, the since-closed PUMP, TOMTOM, Schwartz & Sandy’s, Vanderpump Dogs — with the fervor of Christian pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa.

Among the faithful? Me.

Read more: 'Vanderpump Rules' executive producer Alex Baskin on 'Scandoval' and what's in store for Season 11

My wife and I have visited most of these sites, and we repeat dialogue from episodes to each other in front of befuddled friends who can't understand why we bother with such trash television (among the most cryptic lines: "It’s not about the pasta"). For my birthday, she gifted me a T-shirt featuring a worm with a mustache bracketed by the phrase “You’re a Worm with a Mustache.” That’s the memorable insult that James Kennedy (the DJ of the group) hurled at Tom Sandoval (the resident lout) last season after Sandoval — who had a girlfriend — became romantically involved with Kennedy’s ex-girlfriend.

That drama — appropriately christened “Scandoval” — brought “Vanderpump Rules” a mainstream prestige it had never known, including two Emmy nominations and thoughtful coverage in publications across the world. It wasn’t the first time an affair on the show led to widespread attention. Two years earlier, the end of the relationship between Lala Kent and movie producer Randall Emmett was followed by a Times investigation portraying Emmett as a flimflam man who kept casting Bruce Willis in his schlocky movies despite the actor's dementia (Emmett denied both charges).

I first tuned into “Vanderpump Rules” for its addictive schadenfreude: you delighted in seeing the mistakes of your youth play out among a new generation, except in showier locales. You stayed around to see if the protagonists changed for the better as they aged (spoiler alert: most didn't). Despite the WeHo setting and the troupe's overwhelming whiteness, any Angeleno could identify with them. They weren't already rich, like the people in the show Vanderpump spun off from, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” or the pioneering series “The Hills” and "The Kardashians." They didn’t start out living in a rich man's world, like the people in “Shahs of Sunset,” “Flipping Out” or “Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles.”

The "Vanderpump Rules" crew were the quintessential Angeleno archetype: the striver from nowhere, with something to prove.

This season, however, the show offered a profound lesson in what to do when you find yourself kicked to the proverbial curb, like almost everyone in the big city eventually is.

The big plot line this year involved Sandoval and Ariana Madix, his longtime beau who broke up with him after Scandoval. Cameras captured them at their Valley Village home, communicating only through an ebullient personal assistant, Ann Maddox. The other Vanderpumpers kept trying to create scenarios where Madix would have to talk to Sandoval and at least make peace, so the show could go on like old times.

It didn’t happen, because Madix had moved on — and not just romantically. She appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” starred in a Broadway revival of “Chicago,” wrote a best-selling book and shilled for major brands such as Bic, Glad and Chili’s in self-referential commercials. Just last week, Madix and castmate Katie Maloney opened a West Hollywood sandwich shop called Something About Her that's already drawing hours-long lines (yes, my wife and I plan to go).

As the season progressed, though, it dawned on the rest of her jealous frenemies that Madix’s newfound fame and refusal to reconcile with Sandoval endangered the future of “Vanderpump Rules.” They realized they hadn’t branched out like she had and that their livelihoods would end if their Bravo gravy train petered out.

These tensions blew up in the season finale, when Sandoval broke the fourth wall and huffed about Madix to sympathetic cast members — "Don’t sit back on your lazy ass and collect a f— check for doing nothing" — all because she refused to speak to him at a whiskey launch party in San Francisco. In the last installment of a three-episode reunion special that aired this week, Kent snarled at Madix, "If you’re not going to give a f— about your position on the show, I’m going to need you to give a f— about mine.”

Madix cried but didn’t break. “Vanderpump Rules” is now on hiatus; meanwhile, she's filming another show, this time as the host. She learned the most important lesson L.A. offers: When you get lemons, make margaritas. Build on what brought you down. Pick yourself up and move on. Hustle toward new ventures, new friends. Don't live in the past.

The rest of the "Vanderpump Rules" haters have yet to learn that lesson. May the rest of L.A. tattoo it on our collective hearts.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.