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A 'Vanderpump Rules' review, of sorts
It must have seemed, and it wouldn't have been an unreasonable assumption on his end, that West Hollywood would never run out of sunny afternoons or beautiful women or shots of Don Julio. That there would always be a party to attend, always a photoshoot to book, always an infinity pool stretching into mock eternity with attendant nymphs dipping their shiny copper legs into sapphire blue waters, making kissy faces at their iPhone 4s.
For Jason Michael Cauchi, Los Angeles’ most perfect son, there would have been no cause to interrogate the sweet, Venus flytrap promises of the Sunset Strip, or to look twice at those enticing mirages that have lured many chiseled bodies into jaded afterlives as used and wrinkled spray-tanned cynics in Santa Monica. Or Florida. Or wherever spent entertainers go to dream of those false, golden yesterdays that seemed like they would never end; but did.
For Jason, born in Michigan but born for California, consummate American, consummate consumer, model, actor, mactor who’d made it onto network television, there would have been little to doubt, nothing to question. There was only nectar, and the desire for nectar, urges in perfect symmetry with available vices.
So he drank, and he philandered, and he took with little regard for what the taking might cost, the portrait of American id, never once imagining (one imagines) that he’d ever have to close out the tab. Even as the Greek chorus warned him, singing from their lofty cloud directly above his head, “these are the best days of your life.”
Vanderpump Rules is a serialized, ongoing Tolstoy novel airing on Bravo. At its center is SUR, short for Sexy Unique Restaurant, one of the House of Vanderpump’s many properties. “It’s the restaurant where you take your mistress,” Lisa Vanderpump, grande dame of this little realm, frequently says of her West Hollywood fixture.
She means it literally. Scheana Shay, waitress at SUR, aspiring pop star, former cheerleader, and spurned “other woman” introduces us to the world of Vanderpump Rules after a confrontation with Housewives’ Brandi Glanville, whose husband was having an affair with Shay. It’s also an introduction to the themes of the show. Infidelity. Class. Youth. Ambition. Desire.
In season one, Shay and her castmates occupy a rung in the American caste system common in our pop culture mythos—enough money for boozy brunches at buzzy restaurants, not enough to qualify as wealthy or even rich. True luxury remains just out of reach. No one bats an eye when they call themselves “broke,” nor does anyone quite believe them when they say it, knowing well what is meant: These are mortals.
They are offered glimpses of Olympus, occasionally summoned to Vanderpump’s Villa Rosa, a palace on a hill with a moat populated by white trumpet swans. Occasionally, British Demeter will reach down and bless her favored children, upgrading their hotel rooms to lavish suites on a whim. They are also, however, in constant danger of being expelled at any moment from her good graces should their behavior prove too onerous or unforgivable. “Do whatever you bloody want,” Vanderpump often chides, “just don’t do it at my restaurant!”
If, heaven forbid, you are fired from SUR, your shade remains, as Kristen Doute’s does after her antics go a bridge too far (she instructs a manager to “suck a dick”). You are condemned to wander SUR without a purpose, pretending you really like the goat cheese balls and the wine, a walking, mic’d up ghost, until you are ultimately let go for good.
These are the “rules” of Vanderpump Rules. Be young, be wild, make mistakes, raise some hell, but keep the boss happy. Restaurants in general are sacred to Lisa, who loves restaurants and has great respect for other restaurateurs, and so mischief ought to be avoided entirely in such hallowed spaces. Other than that, please do make a scene.
Part of the appeal of Vanderpump Rules is watching our heroes walk this tightrope. They have to make good television, or, in other words, they have to be “messy as hell,” but they can never allow that mess to get out of hand and lose them their chance at Olympus, at a Villa Rosa of their own. Most of them, to some degree, want to be Lisa, or Lisa-adjacent, one day. Strivers in the audience might recognize such precarity in their own lives, albeit without the cameras. It’s the American Dream, writ small and in cursive: beautiful, vulnerable people vying to have it all.
But at the beating heart of the show, at its sturdy foundation, a foundation upon which ten seasons have confidently been laid, is the romance between a bartender and a waitress. Enter Jax and Stassi.
Jax, the chosen name of Jason Michael Cauchi, the moniker begetting his core philosophy that things ought to be simple and stylish, is a two-timing, good-for-nothing, perfidious slinger of martinis who relies on his Casanova charms to get him out of trouble. Stassi, the affectionate nickname of Nastassia Bianca Schroeder, is the self-professed descendent of a Swedish princess who carries herself as such whether she’s lording over her handmaidens or carrying a tray of crispy chicken to one of her tables. Her royal brattiness is excused only by her wittiness in her confessionals.
Lady meets tramp, and they ruin each other’s lives in increasingly inventive ways. In the beginning, we are offered a portrait of profound spousal dissatisfaction. Stassi wants Jax to grow up. Stop getting hammered every night. Get a real job. Show some ambition. You’re thirty! You can’t be a mactor forever, Jax Taylor!
Jax, expert in saying whatever he needs to say to wriggle out of any given conversation regardless of its gravity, offers Stassi a sufficient combination of words to get her off his back, and the cycle begins anew. Jax, we learn, is incapable of breaking up with anyone, a fact that at first seems at odds with his reputation as a serial womanizer, but, as we’ll see, is not.
It’s Stassi who at last calls things off with Jax after it’s revealed he cheated on her with another woman in Las Vegas, whom he may or may not have impregnated. Vegas, future seasons explain, is where the men of Vanderpump Rules go to cheat. Thus begins the long, torturous process of the bartender trying to win back his princess, a twisted love story that fuels the first two seasons of the show, which also happen to be its best.
Jax is never more compelling than when he is trying to win Stassi back. So certain is he that she and she alone is the answer, his raison d'être, that he is willing to utterly debase himself just to crawl back into her orbit as a lesser satellite. He’ll do whatever it takes, anything she asks, so long as his reward is the mere glimpse of her, so long as the red hot promise of her touch remains somewhere in the realm of possibility.
This is in stark contrast to his attitude when he had her, when he would dismiss her, call her the devil, wonder aloud why he’s still with her. But he admits it himself; he is a creature of perfect devotion, a masochist enamored with the pursuit, not the possession. He is Creatine King Midas, starving for love, for passion, for pleasure. His touch murders desire, renders the object of his affections into something that can no longer satisfy him. He pushes women away so that he might desire them anew, a Gatsby who much prefers the green light over Daisy and would date the green light itself if he could, if the green light would agree to a boob job.
So frequent is this cycle that his cohorts have given it a name. Being Jaxed. To be Jaxed is to be courted, used, and forced to break up with him when at least his behavior proves intolerable. The courting is intense, with the woman being placed at the very center of his universe. He will tattoo her name on his bicep, his body a veritable graveyard of tributes to other women, women who flash across his sky like a comet and are gone as soon as they arrive.
Stassi! The most beautiful creature ever to draw breath!
Laura-Leigh! The best sex I’ve ever had!
Lala! I’d destroy her if given the chance!
Carmen! Why not?
Brittany! I guess!
The seasons go by, and so do the receptacles of his worship. Season One. Season Two. Season Three. On and on they go, and faces sink and sag and bloat and become weirdly shiny as the cast clings for dear life to the youth that once lit their path to television. Their fortunes rise and fall. Relationships blossom and wilt. Jax, meanwhile, continues to be Jax.
His comrades pursue the Sisyphean task of monogamy, pushing their relationships up a hill lubricated with booze and… lube. Jax, on the other hand, pursues being Sisyphus himself, in love with the boulder and with the act of pushing it. Desire for desire itself. Toil for love of toiling.
His goal each season is the same. To be a dog. A scoundrel. A lout. To situate himself in a position that maximizes pleasure, which, for Jax, means maximizing punishment. He will lie, cheat, backstab, and steal. He will be yelled at, slapped, punched, arrested, condemned, and, crucially, forgiven. Allowed to do it all again, to pursue once more the rapture of his own annihilation.
It’s fitting he ends up with (assuming an “end”) Brittany, a person with endless reserves for punishment, a person who cannot be Jaxed because she refuses to go away. It’s only when a woman leaves, after all, that Jax can be assured he’s drunk every last drop of her. Brittany will not give this to him, despite being cheated on, and despite having an audio recording of that cheating. “Long-suffering” doesn’t even begin to describe her. Caught in this gridlock, Jax, the terror of WeHo, has been sealed away in a miserable samsara, thanks to one woman’s morally dubious sacrifice.
But time marches on regardless, for all but Lisa Vanderpump, and one by one his castmates are struck down and replaced, ruined by their ambitions, sabotaged by their appetites, their dreams of Olympus dashed. “I am Mohammad Gandhi,” Jax once said in a confessional, “I can see into the future.” One wonders if he foresaw his own downfall on the show, as “Mohammad” might have. He was kicked out of Lisa’s Eden in 2020.
One might also wonder, however, if being on the outs is right where he likes to be. As he claws his way back onto television using the recent controversy over his friend Tom Sandoval’s affair, an affair dubbed “Scandoval” for how it has rippled across the public, it’s not hard to imagine that, for Jax, the show itself is now merely another light to chase, another woman to win back. He might be happier than ever.
Jax Taylor rose to pseudo-prominence in a particularly hollow America, an America with no strong myths to bring its disparate peoples together, a cynical, self-parody of an America whose reality television shows all but acknowledged that the dream was either dead or a lie, that neither wealth nor beauty would spare you in the end, an America that mined entertainment from its own dysfunction, watching beautiful fools climb the impossible mountain before sliding all the way back down to the general population’s cathartic delight.
In such an America, the only real winner is the sadomasochist.
Slowly do the bushy teeth of the Venus flytrap, thick as Scheana Shay’s lashes, close around its prey. Hollywood consumes yet another class of mactors before passing out professional headshots to its next batch of snacks, to beautiful, broken people who believe, without knowing they believe it, that they are the first people to have ever been young. A crop of new servers are hired for season 8, and promptly fired when Covid hits, dispensable as ever.
The stage is torn down and set up again. The lights go on. The cameras roll. It is an unkind project, the whole affair. It should inspire contempt. It ought to be exposed for the ugly thing it is. Perhaps that’s why, no matter how unforgivable his actions, I can’t help but raise my glass high to Jax Taylor, a scourge, a reckoning, a beast who meets our wicked culture on its own terms.
Ours is a culture that asks that we languish in perpetual hunger for the things it dangles in front of our faces, for sex and wealth and a palace on a hill, but never gives it to us.
“Good,” Jax might say to such a proposition. “I get off on that.”
It’s not so much sympathy for the devil as it is earnest appreciation. The greatest indictment of any society is found in those who derive the most satisfaction from it. In both his castmates and in his eager audience, there is naught but misery and grief as their dreams are crushed in the machine. But for one Jax Taylor, being crushed is a kink, and a dream is just something that holds your attention for a while.
There’s something to root for there, for how honest it is. In a world of dastardly illusions, Jax unmasks them by embracing them, never pretending he is anything other than a vile creature in pursuit of pleasure, the devil to Lisa Vanderpump’s goddess, an immoral person in an immoral place that likes to pretend otherwise, a perfect American in an imperfect America.
Should he wriggle his way through the gates of heaven, the angels themselves will be Jaxed.
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