At a small table outside SUR restaurant in West Hollywood, in the season two finale episode of Vanderpump Rules, Kristen Doute admits to Stassi Schroeder that she had sex with Jax Taylor. Even for reality TV — where bed-hopping is par for the course — this was a staggering confession. Schroeder, who had once dated Taylor, caught a whiff of this rumor months before and had launched a full-on investigation to determine if it was true. Vanderpump Rules executive producer Bill Langworthy and his team had captured it all for the show's second season, and for viewers who watched it unfold, that confession packed no less gratification than those who'd sat at the edge of their couches to find out who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or who shot J.R. in Dallas.
The season had centered around this mystery, and until filming that scene, Langworthy was never certain it would be solved. But Schroeder, his acknowledged central character, was relentless. “If Stassi had been passive, I don’t think [that confession] would have come out," he says, sitting in a VIP nook of SUR, the show's stomping grounds. "She really very cleverly built a case and stacked up all this evidence.”
Any good whodunit needs a payoff in the end, and so far, Vanderpump Rules has delivered that sense of satisfaction better than any other conflict-based reality show on TV. On one hand, that's due to the classic mystery-story structure present in each of its first two seasons. "It really is like an Agatha Christie novel," Langworthy says of the show, "where you see a detective launch an investigation...and one thing leads to another, there’s an accusation, and in the last minute...everyone comes together in the drawing room, and there’s a forced confession.”
But the other side of that coin is a savviness for the nuts and bolts of reality TV storytelling that few like Langworthy can bring. Langworthy cut his teeth as a supervising producer on The Hills, one of the most followed reality shows in history. But unlike The Hills, which was later recognized for heavily producing many of its storylines, Langworthy says Vanderpump Rules is a "completely different show."
So what are the keys, then, to telling an entirely riveting story when you don't have the freedom to write it?
Having a central location — in this case, SUR, where all the case members work — is a huge help. For Langworthy, it eliminates what he calls the "I hate you please come to my birthday party" problem reality producers often face. "You want people who are distinct and different, and have different points of view and a lot of conflict," he says, "but you also want them to hang out all the time." In most conflict-based shows, that can be hard to do."It’s like, why are you going to Costa Rica with that person?" he says. "She tried to send your husband to jail. She stabbed you the last time she saw you. You should be getting a restraining order.”
But with SUR at the center of all the action, that pressure to push them together is off.“No matter what forces might be driving these people apart," he says, "if it’s five o’clock, it’s time to clock in.”
Langworthy also credits the immense amount of talent the cast brings to the show. Talent? On reality TV? Yes, absolutely, he says. “The biggest thing — and nobody really talks about this — is that people love to say that everyone on reality shows has no talent. I can definitely tell you from having worked with a ton of different people: the difference in talent levels is like the difference between a 5th grader playing basketball and LeBron James. There are just certain people who, when they’re on screen, you’re with them. You are living their life with them and you’re seeing the world through their eyes. And there are other people who, when they’re on screen, turn to mud.”
He sees his Vanderpump Rules cast as on the LeBron James side of that scale. “When Stassi’s angry, you’re not at home confused going ‘I wonder what she’s going through right now.’ You’re right there with it. It’s so immediate. And that might not be a talent like heart surgery or playing the violin, but it’s a certain quality that people have, or do not have.”
It also was a huge advantage that the show was a spinoff. Viewers already knew Lisa Vanderpump from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, so Langworthy could set her up as a Pied Piper to the new series. Vanderpump had the strongest rapport with Schroeder, he says, and Schroeder was the most ready to carry a story. Then Schroeder introduced us to Taylor, and the central storyline was born. Viewers were roped the into the characters — carried there by Vanderpump. It was a tactic employed at The Hills as well. Lauren Conrad's Laguna Beach fame gave the show cred, and that cred bled onto Heidi Montag, and Audrina Patridge, and Brody Jenner, and so on.
Of course, all of that creates a great set-up for success, but how much of the story — especially considering a Hills alum is running it — is actually real?
More than we'd think. Pretty much all of it, Langworthy contends.
“I think people have a lot lower tolerance for [overly produced reality TV] now," he says. "I think that people can really smell it. I would have loved to have the scene where Jax confessed that he slept with Kristin, [an off-camera conversation that started the rumor mill] but we just didn’t get it, and we had all this other great stuff that was 100 percent real, so it’s like, let’s tell the story with that and let people fill in the blanks rather than try to sell them on something.”
So the Vanderpump Rules cast is taking the lead, and Langworthy is following. “At the time that the things are happening on screen, we the producers don’t know any more than the viewers at home do.”
“I think people should trust themselves," he continues. "If it looks real and it feels real, then it most likely is real. If things start to feel a little convenient — if you ever find yourself asking, ‘Now why did they have a camera on that phone before it rang?’ then that’s probably not the most real thing.”
“It’s a very generous thing that the cast has done: to live it all out loud," he says. "To let everybody see the good parts of their lives, the bad parts of their lives, the parts of their lives they’d sooner forget. There aren’t that many chances to do that. I hope people appreciate this cast and realize that they’re not just clocking in...they’re really sharing 100 percent of their lives.”
Season three of Vanderpump Rules premieres on Monday, Nov. 3 at 9:00 p.m. on Bravo.
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