As you know, today is a national holiday: the third installment of the Vanderpump Rules reunion show, which marks the end of the most perfect television show on Earth’s riotous sixth season. Will Jax burst a vein? Will Scheana look at the ceiling and hold her fingers under her eyes to keep the tears in? Will everyone shout over each other? Did Kristen and James bang in, around, or next to the pool??? I don’t know, but it seems likely. They’re not great people. And yet, I love them. I consider them my friends and I want them to be happy.
How did this happen to me? As of early March, I’d never seen the show. Then I watched five seasons on Hulu in the space of six weeks, and then the sixth on Bravo on demand, and somewhere in the process I became an insane person who follows eight current and former SUR staffers on Instagram. When I started the show, I found the cast almost universally repellent. But then I kept watching. And watching. And now I see the best in all of them.
To help me figure out where I went wrong, I talked to Richard Keen, a professor of psychology at Converse College who’s studied the appeal of “bad guys.” To prepare for our interview, he tells me, he voluntarily watched one episode of Vanderpump Rules. Later, though, he describes the amount of Vanderpump Rules he watched as “a little over an episode.” Thought so.
As far as Keen can tell, there are two main factors that go into making the Vanderpump cast so compelling.
1. They’re hot.
Keen describes the cast as “pretty attractive,” which, I have to say, is a gross understatement. I am attracted to everybody that has ever worked or will ever work at SUR, which is no doubt part (all?) of the hiring strategy. And, unfortunately, when we’re attracted to someone, we tend to assume they’re a good person.
Not only do we like hot people more, but the research also shows we tend to think they’re smarter, healthier, and more socially skilled than the average person (the latter being the most hilarious to imagine in the framework of this TV show.) This is also called “the halo effect,” by which good-looking people get away with murder (or repeated infidelity, or excessive drinking) simply by being good-looking.
“If you think about the movies most Americans watch when they’re young, like Disney movies, who is beautiful and good, and who is ugly and bad?” says Keen. For our purposes, let’s call this perspective “Vanderpump rosé colored glasses.”
For instance: Schwartz is adorable, so it bothers me less that he keeps blacking out and kissing women who aren’t his wife. I consider him an essentially good partner, and I probably would not think that if he didn’t look the way he does. Similarly, I forgive Stassi for all of season one and every birthday thereafter, and that’s almost certainly because she is very pretty. Sure, she has grown. They’ve all “grown.” But would we be so impressed with so little improvement from people who aren’t hot enough to get hired at Sexy Unique Restaurant?
2. They’re familiar.
Perhaps even more irresistible than the Vanderpump cast’s good looks is their ever increasing familiarity. As it turns out, a healthy part of the reason you like any given person has to do with the fact that you just … see them a lot. This, Keen tells me, is called the mere exposure effect. “When we’re exposed to something repeatedly, we actually start to like it more,” says Keen. “It could be a face you don’t even know, and if someone just kept showing you pictures, eventually you start to like it more and more.” This principle applies even to low-stakes, seemingly unsentimental entities like letters of the alphabet — when asked for their favorite letter, most people will choose a vowel, or another commonly used letter, says Keen.
By my calculations, I have spent roughly 120 hours with the Vanderpump cast — not including all the time I’ve wasted on their boring Instagram stories. While I may have been somewhat objective when we first met, I am too far in now to judge these people accurately. I know them, so I like them. In some cases, they remind me of people I know (Jax, for example, being a near-perfect simulacrum of a Phi Gamma Delta upperclassman who once kissed me and a number of other freshmen from our Chinese history class in succession). Few of us are lucky enough to have a Lala Kent in our lives, but most of us know someone a little like her, and that might make us like her more, too.
Finally, people are judged within the contexts in which they exist. They are all a little awful, but some are more awful than others. (“What is it, Stacy? Stassi? Wow. She’s something,” says Keen.) It is fun to rank them, and to watch those rankings change. I hated season one Stassi too, and now I pathetically tweet at her sometimes. People change, and it’s nice to hope it’s for the better. When I asked Keen if he planned to watch more of the show, he said he wasn’t sure, but he had to admit he was curious about its cast. “I do have some interest now in what happens to these people,” he says. “I’m a little invested in how the characters turn out, basically.” Keen attributes some of the cast’s bad behavior to their age, guessing that most of them were in their “early 20s or younger” when the show started and will therefore surely mature. I tell him they’re all, like, 36. But, you know, worth watching, just in case.