reality check

The Tragic Zero

In trying and failing to craft a romantic hero narrative, Tom Sandoval broke the No. 1 rule of reality TV.

The many faces of the Vanderpump Rules star. Video: Bravo

After all the gallons of Tom Sandoval’s fake tears, the gravity-defying orbits of Ariana Madix’s rolled eyes, and the sense that none of this has gone the way the man who single-handedly ruined white nail polish intended, whatever Raquel Leviss was going to say during the third and final installment of the Vanderpump Rules reunion couldn’t have mattered much. What Leviss did in secret over this past tenth season — participated in a seven-month affair with Sandoval, an OG cast member in a nine-year relationship with long-term Pump Rules-er Madix — had already been revealed. Yet Bravo overlord Andy Cohen had promised a “twist,” and so audiences arrived desperate for one. Leviss’s apology to Madix was hardly an unexpected development, but it was thorough, even if the actual record-scratch moment — her tear-filled affair-timeline clarification in the final minutes of “Reunion Part 3” (against Sandoval’s wishes, she says) — confirmed that her mea culpa was full of mistruths.

Did either moment really change the mind of anyone who’s followed this ignominious display of Bravolebrity infidelity, backstabbing, and ostracizing? Before Leviss took the stage alongside the Vanderpump Rules cast who had unfollowed her on social media after the affair went public, and with whom she was reuniting after weeks of not being “seen or heard from,” according to an intertitle in the May 17 finale episode “#Scandoval,” certain narratives about the former pageant contestant had been set in place: She was a lost woman without a personality of her own, someone who entered the Pump Rules world because she was dating another cast member, James Kennedy, and who seemed adrift since they ended their five-year relationship and engagement in 2021. She was an opportunist and, as was thrown about many times during “Reunion Part 3,” “a sociopath,” going behind best friend Madix’s back to sleep with Sandoval in the couple’s home. Perhaps most self-destructively, she was a mouthpiece for Sandoval, seemingly repeating what he wanted her to say about their relationship and its contested details, and about the unique happiness they felt with each other that no one else (not Kennedy, not Madix) had provided.

Leviss and Sandoval’s insistence that their relationship was born not out of malice, but of pure synchronicity and organic magnetism, is the defense they’ve clung to all season, one seemingly manufactured by their assumption that true love could be a fortification against all accusations of wrongdoing. “It wasn’t about fucking, it was about a connection,” Sandoval claimed to Madix in “#Scandoval.” “He made me feel heard and seen,” Leviss said to reunion host Andy Cohen in “Reunion Part 2.” “We don’t live our lives by logic. Feelings took over,” Sandoval declared in “Reunion Part 3” when Cohen asked why neither Sandoval nor Leviss came clean to Madix. What the pair didn’t anticipate, however, is that the kind of grandiose, illicit version of romance they were performing works better in fiction, when the audience’s imagination is open to sentimentalizing misdeeds and deceit. Reality TV is a different animal, and the lies from Sandoval and Leviss broke the tenuous social contract upon which this genre is built.

Vanderpump Rules isn’t literary canon like Anna Karenina or The Age of Innocence, and Sandoval and Leviss aren’t star-crossed TV lovers like Angel and Buffy or Robb and Talisa. Sandoval’s blundering attempt at rebranding as a lover mired in an irresistibly amorous, inevitably tragic liaison ultimately tested the limitations of his acting abilities. His spin hasn’t stuck, either on his Vanderpump Rules castmates (friends and coworkers who, for more than a decade, have blurred all kinds of personal and professional boundaries) or the viewers, who demand reality-TV personalities perform authenticity above all else. All of this negativity wasn’t the storyline that Sandoval wanted, but it’s the one he’s now stuck with.

Infidelity has been a central component of Vanderpump Rules since the series premiered in January 2013 as a spinoff of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, following multimillionaire Lisa Vanderpump and certain (attractive, thin, mostly white) staff members at her mini-empire of West Hollywood restaurants and bars. In those early days, “home-wrecker” was a common insult between the cliquey factions who worked at SUR Restaurant & Lounge; as Cohen noted in “Reunion Part 1,” “No one in this group has clean hands.” Sandoval was there from the beginning, a smooth-faced, aggressively cheek-boned actor who at the time was dating co-worker and fellow actor Kristen Doute; by the middle of season two, Doute was wondering whether Sandoval’s friendship with Madix, a recurring cast member, was just a friendship.

When Sandoval and Doute broke up, he blamed their growing emotional distance, her insulting and dismissive behavior toward him, and their lack of a sex life (keep these all in mind!), and soon he was with Madix, in a relationship that Doute kept trying to sabotage. Doute has since claimed that the series’s production team positioned her in ways that made her seem vengeful and hysterical, like when she showed up to SUR with the “Miami Girl” who she accused Tom of cheating on Ariana with in season three. But Madix was an impenetrable wall when it came to trusting Sandoval, and over the years, their relationship was a constant as so many others either broke up or were rocked by their own cheating scandals, including Doute and Kennedy and Sandoval’s best friend Tom Schwartz and his eventual ex-wife Katie Maloney.

Throughout season ten, as whispers of impropriety between Sandoval and Leviss grew louder, Madix maintained the calm neutrality that helped her befriend nearly everyone on the show, even those who hated each other, like Maloney and Scheana Shay. Her frankness in confessional interviews, her refusal to get involved as castmates bullied or trash-talked one another, her raw, agonized grief over the deaths of her beloved grandmother and dog, and her big-sister generosity toward Leviss (who, like so many other former Vanderpump Rules faces, could have been quietly shunted off the show after her relationship with a main cast member ended) made her a viewer favorite. Her loyalty and her evenhandedness — and how long she and Sandoval had stayed together, seemingly stable and satisfied, despite their shady origin story — made her the closest thing Vanderpump Rules had to an unblemished heroine. The tactical error Sandoval made, though, was thinking that Ariana’s heroine qualities also made him heroic.

Within the show’s purposeful group dynamic — almost incestuous, with castmates referring to each other as brothers and sisters and then also sleeping with each other’s partners — everyone’s brand is dependent on the inherent drama of that closeness (who’s getting along, who’s feuding) and on a presumed degree of honesty. Vanderpump Rules thrives on the tension between the two: the sense that everyone is living their truth for us to watch, even though (and sometimes, especially if) it might be divergent from someone else’s. Since the affair was revealed in March, Sandoval has tried to use that tension to his benefit by claiming that his happiness with Madix wasn’t genuine while his feelings for Leviss are; that Madix didn’t take his concerns about aging and aimlessness seriously, while Leviss did. The problem is that Sandoval and Leviss’s secrecy kept us from seeing any of that. They forgot that the reality-TV formula deems honesty to be what is captured on camera and dishonesty to be what people claim happened off.

Vanderpump Rules is a show with a long memory, and thanks to the reminders provided by desaturated flashbacks to prior seasons, Sandoval’s self-pitying presentation of himself as “the most hated man on television right now” is established as eerily similar to how he behaved in the past with Doute and with Miami Girl. Or consider his behavior when confronted by Madix, Schwartz, or Vanderpump in “#Scandoval,” blaming Madix for both his actions and inaction: “Every time I tried to apologize to you, it just makes you more angry”; “I don’t know how it happened. It just happened”; “I was seeking something that I wasn’t getting here”; “I lost all my mojo … Once I turned 40, I was like, ‘This can’t be the rest of my life.’” Maybe this would be sympathetic, if it weren’t overly reminiscent of the same excuses he gave to Doute when they broke up. In “Reunion Part 1,” Vanderpump Rules takes us back to 2013, to Sandoval saying to Doute, “We also hadn’t had sex in three months. … You cringed every time I hugged you,” and then flashes us forward to March 2023, when he said to Madix, “We’d be separated all the time. … We have no sex life.”

Sandoval’s rigid allegiance to this almost scripted litany of complaints extends to his physicality: covering his face while making sobbing sounds in an embrace with Schwartz; deeply sighing, exhaling, and pausing when pressed by Cohen; his lack of eye contact, his shaking head, and his faraway gazes when Madix speaks. His only believable moments are when he breaks from this woe-is-me execution and admits that he’s tired of that very staging. When he whispers in Leviss’s ear in their one “#Scandoval” scene together, “I can’t kiss you, there’s cameras,” or starts yelling at the production crew in “Reunion Part 2” that they want a “for-real break where we’re not being filmed,” those are brief glimpses of the bifurcation between “reality TV” and “reality” that Sandoval thought he could use to his advantage. “I don’t want a camera in my fucking goddamn face. … We have to watch what we fucking say,” Sandoval complains, but those cameras, and the accuracy we want them to convey, are the primary reason we care about Sandoval at all. Without them, Sandoval is more a “worm with a mustache,” as Kennedy claims, than the group’s central driving character.

That role goes instead to Madix, who Vanderpump Rules, and by extension the audience, have chosen to elevate. Madix emerges from this season not as the woman who did wrong, but the woman who was wronged; she’s Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet, she’s Natasha Naginsky in Sex and the City, she’s Jennifer Garner saying of Ben Affleck’s phoenix back tattoo, “I refuse to be the ashes.” Sandoval’s failure to make himself a tragic figure made Madix a triumphant one. She was seated next to Cohen at the reunion, dressed in a body-con outfit that qualified as a fashion fuck-you; she was scornful in refusing to accept Sandoval and Leviss’s apologies, yet vulnerable when admitting that the support of her friends, coworkers, and Vanderpump Rules fans has been needed and valuable; she was direct in interrupting anyone who suggested she should feel bad about Sandoval and Leviss’s love. (I assume that branding genius Lala Kent is already working on a way to turn Madix’s “I’m not humiliated. They are” into merch for Something About Her, the sandwich shop Madix and Maloney are opening this summer.)

Madix’s willingness to provide the production crew with her text messages, her unfiltered reactions to Sandoval and Leviss’s affair, and her vehement defense of herself spread her fame outside of the Vanderpump Rules sphere, to new brand partnerships, acting roles, and an invite to the White House Correspondents Dinner. When Cohen described Madix as “like Princess Diana” in “Reunion Part 1,” he was referring to her bold, bright-red dress and comparing it with Diana’s iconic 1994 “revenge dress.” But his observation works on a larger scale, too, if we see Sandoval as Prince Charles, Leviss as Camilla Parker-Bowles, and their relationship as a self-serving respite from the pressures of a demanding public and the weight of a forward-facing identity. They might have become king and queen, but they — unlike Madix’s People’s Princess — never became beloved.

Sandoval’s greatest misstep was thinking that he could craft his own narrative within an episodic reality-TV format that accumulates character development over time and that can break the fourth wall by pinpointing those same characters’ flaws and mistakes. What is Leviss’s final confession to the producers, and to us, about sleeping with Sandoval when Madix was out of town for her grandmother’s funeral if not evidence of how quickly one version of a story can fall apart, and another version can take on a new shape? Sandoval’s claim in “Reunion Part 1” that he wanted to be “more real … I just didn’t think it was fair to the rest of the cast” illuminates the dissonance we’ve always known about “reality” TV: that it’s only as real as its participants allow it to be.

Bravo has perfected a formula in which its anointed live in front of the camera for however long they want to be marginally famous (unless they go to prison, which is becoming a trend!), and Sandoval and Leviss were no match for a machine that has been grinding along for decades. In an atmosphere of 24/7 surveillance, maybe an illicit dalliance — a secret from the world, something that no one else knows — is inevitable, a way out of what could be perceived as an existential trap. Unlike a spilled Pumptini, though, that deception doesn’t just wipe away.

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The Tragic Zero