I’ve taught Film for a bunch of years now, and the one thing that has stayed consistent over the passage of time is that at least two students a year will ask me to please start the course with a screening of Scarface. (They especially like that movie when the volume is turned all the way up. Apparently hearing Tony Montana fully snort that blow clear up his left nostril is absolutely integral to the experience.) I appreciate their advice – or at least I pretend that I do – but I usually choose to start the semester with a lesson on the concept of willful suspension of disbelief.
To willfully suspend disbelief is to willingly accept that every single thing you’re seeing in the world of the movie is real. It is something we do easily and almost unconsciously, and we do it simply for the sake of our own desire for engagement. We want to immerse ourselves in the world of an onscreen experience, and for a society that has consumed film for our entire lives, the act of sliding into the state of I’ll-believe-anything doesn’t take any sort of serious effort. I mean, have you ever once seen someone on line at a multiplex jabbering incessantly to himself that he needs to get into the proper mindset fast so he will be able to believe that the pirate he’s about to see, the one who applies his black eyeliner with a heavy hand, is in fact Captain Jack Sparrow and not Johnny Depp? Have you ever once watched a kid stalk out of a living room in disgust because she knows full well that not only is it impossible to sing while underwater, but there’s no single solitary chance in hell that Ariel’s long red hair would stay that frizz-free after being submerged for that amount of time? I haven’t either. Every once in a long while a movie comes out with a premise so hideously preposterous and the film itself is so terribly made that suspending disbelief feels borderline impossible to pull off. I had one such experience a bunch of years ago when I saw Face/Off. For the fortunate ones who have never watched it, just know the story involves John Travolta and Nicholas Cage TRADING FACES. Also know that the typically-compliant-willfully-suspending-disbelief part of me can happily buy the notion that Halloween’s Michael Myers has been shot, run over, burned, drowned, and tossed off balconies and he’s still alive and stabbing, but not even the evil twin version of my willfully disbelieving self could engage with Face/Off in the slightest. I’m a girl who’s got herself some limits.
Terrible Nicholas Cage movies aside, the concept of willfully suspending disbelief crawled into my mind a few weeks ago when I watched the first episode of the new season of Vanderpump Rules. I have experience watching this show. I have – gulp – seen every single episode since the show’s initial premiere and I used to recap it. There I would sit, a laptop resting on my thigh the moment the clock struck 9:00pm. I’d write while I watched and I’d press the pause button throughout so I could type out my very lengthy thoughts the second they came into my brain and I would go back and edit the entire thing right after the show ended and I was usually able to post the piece right before midnight. There were some lovely positives to this recapping experience. I was able to flex my writing and my sarcasm muscles weekly and I gained some faithful and fun readers. I would also feel a true sense of accomplishment late in the night when I would finally unwind my body from the sofa and stretch and put away my laptop. I would go back and read each recap once after it was posted and very often there were lines that made me laugh out loud that I couldn’t remember writing in the first place. (The lines you don’t recall crafting – the ones that seemingly write themselves – are usually the best lines. They tend to be the funniest.) But eventually a few things happened and I stopped recapping Bravo shows:
1. I missed just being a viewer! I wanted to watch and escape into the televised madness like everyone else without having to figure out a brand new way to describe a total fucking asshole. Sure, I once branded Brandi Glanville “Satan’s sphincter” and I was very pleased with that entirely accurate description of her apocalyptic personality, but I longed for less responsibility during my evening hours.
2. I began writing recaps for other shows on other networks and two things changed the way I saw writing recaps forever: I was sent screeners so I could watch the episodes in advance and therefore did not have to will myself to feel creative late on a weeknight when all I really desired was sleep. Oh – and I got paid for my work.
It turns out I really enjoy being paid for my services, especially if I’m able to be entirely myself in the process and I am not required to dial down my horror at what I’m seeing onscreen. The people I’ve written for have been very good sports about allowing me to call the participants of their shows “walking manifestations of evil who will surely usher in the darkest of fucking days,” but really? You watch some of those shows and try to wax kind or poetic about the emotional savages who populate them. I’m only reacting to what I’m watching, and my guess is that my reaction closely mirrors that of many viewers, or at least the ones still defined by sanity. I have a new writing job lined up for early next year. I will be recapping Temptation Island, one of the earliest reality shows I remember watching back in the day when Reality TV was still in its infancy, back when nobody but the truly unfortunate ones knew that a woman named Vicki Gunvalson existed on this planet. Oh, how badly I (and, very likely, the founders of Juicy Couture) miss that terrycloth innocence of the early 2000s…
There are some shows I no longer watch if I’m not recapping them, but others I’ll still DVR every single week. I don’t type out twelve pages of commentary anymore on Vanderpump Rules – seriously: those recaps often ran twelve pages – but I haven’t yet missed an episode. And what I’m realizing about this particular season is that the viewer is clearly supposed to believe that the series is now all about engagements and weddings and something called beer cheese when what this season is actually about is whether or not a viewer is capable of suspending disbelief in the face of such utter bullshit.
Do I sound harsh? Good. That means I haven’t lost my edge. And I think I will need several fucking edges when I start writing about Temptation Island, a show where already-fractured couples are plied with both booze and sexually-adventurous strangers, but for now let’s focus on the group from SUR and the complete crocks of steaming rubbish the producers and participants of this show actually expect us to believe.
Willful Suspension of Disbelief Failure #1:
The viewer is being asked to believe that this group of people still regularly punches into a time clock to work in a restaurant. We all know they don’t work there on a consistent basis anymore, right? And we certainly know they are never randomly scheduled to all work together on a night when a camera crew is not also shoved onto the premises. So to begin the season with Scheana and Lala briskly walking into SUR to work some shifts like they actually do such a thing all the time? Motherfucker, please. But I tried. I tried so hard to ignore the glaring inconsistencies of the truth! I tried instead to focus on the illuminating conversation Lala and Scheana were having wherein they expounded insightfully on the meaning of human existence. I’m sorry, what? That was just a fever dream I had? They never once mentioned human existence and were instead discussing how Lala most enjoys being at a weight where her ass cheeks bounce? Yes. That sounds far more likely a conversation to occur between two contoured geniuses as they head in to work at a place where they don’t really work anymore.
Willful Suspension of Disbelief Failure #2:
This is the one that fucking galls me because it’s so antithetical to every single thing we’ve been exposed to thus far. We, the faithful viewers of this show, are being asked to believe that Jax has completely changed. Allow me to walk you through why this plotline is both offensive and bombastically idiotic. We have spent many seasons with this sweaty man. We have been told by everybody – including the sweaty man himself – that he has cheated on every girl he’s ever been with, including his now-glowing fiancé. This is a man who responds to every completely earned insult heaved his way by retorting, “You’re not perfect either!” This man has violated the trust of anything with a pulse that has ever sadly gotten close to him while never having to deal with any real consequences. He slept with Sandoval’s girlfriend while Sandoval was in the next room? Forgiven. He cheated on all of his girlfriends with both strangers and with people they knew very well? He walked away unscathed. He threw a tantrum even a toddler would find abnormal at his place of business? He’s working there again. He has rage issues. He has projection problems. He’s the least selfless person I’ve maybe ever seen on television and I watch Billions. But his father recently passed away and that loss clearly impacted Jax. That part I believe. I, too, have lost a parent and I know how such a void shifts your entire existence. I know you begin to cling to those who emotionally support you, especially in that very dark and dank first year after the death of your loved one. I know you reevaluate what’s important and that Jax has shown more appreciation to Brittany and his friends than he ever has before, but since before he showed them exactly no appreciation, how much of a big deal should anyone be making here? I also know two important things with the kind of unqualified certainty that only comes with age and because I’ve had a ton of experience with a few men who are total fucking dicks:
1. Men nearing the age of forty do not suddenly develop qualities like honesty, loyalty, selflessness, and kindness, especially if they’ve profited their entire lives without being any of those things.
2. Jax is a total fucking dick.
Look, I think it’s lovely that he thinks he’s changed and it’s lovelier still that he is pretending to believe he will be this new calm person forever, but after watching this show for years, my guess is that Jax’s number one priority will always be Jax and, after a bit of time, his appreciation for how great Brittany was during the loss of his father will fade and he will begin to get annoyed when her focus shifts to the baby they keep giving interviews about having imminently and his focus will then start to shift to other women. This is a guy who told the mother of the woman he’s now marrying that he is a terrible person. While tragic and probably stated for manipulative purposes, he was not wrong. And losing someone – even someone who helped define your entire life – doesn’t automatically flip a switch inside of you that takes away one’s core of terribleness, so I find it downright insulting that viewers are basically being asked to just shrug and agree that this cretin has actually changed and I find it alarming that the people on the show who know him well are accepting such a notion also. I feel like I’m watching televised fraud and I just know there will eventually be a psychological body count.
But I do keep watching this show and it’s not just because I want to vicariously experience the glory of fried goat cheese balls. I guess I keep watching because there is still much I do believe:
I believe Scheana will never achieve anything that’s even cerebrally adjacent to self-awareness. She will always piss someone off or say exactly the wrong thing and she will never grow to understand that perhaps she would have time to be more reflective about her actions if she spent less time applying lashes that resemble feather dusters that can be purchased at the dollar store and taking selfies from her good side.
I believe Lala will continue to refer to herself in the third person and that nobody around her will say how annoying and unnecessary it is because they don’t want to be left off the manifest for the next ride on her man’s private plane. (And speaking of Lala, the fact that last season she was anointed a feminist hero in part because she didn’t call any of her co-workers fat kind of troubled me. Is the bar really that fucking low, people?)
Something else I steadfastly believe is that there’s no chance Kristen will ever be fully sane, but I think I understand her motivation for sticking with the crazy in a way I once did not. The woman has been on this reality show for years. Other than a tee shirt line that I can’t imagine has yielded anything resembling a windfall, she really has nothing else going on. She has not monetized her appearance on this show the way the savviest of some Real Housewives have. I’m sure she gets paid to endorse products on her Instagram, but girls who get eliminated on week three of The Bachelor snag those endorsements, too. Kristen has been a reality show participant for a long while now, and it’s starting to look like that’s all she will end up doing. As a result, being crazy is her bread and butter. Being batshit mad helps her pay her rent. Being devoid of the ability to not slit her eyes and choose a new target every season is something she will never have to deal with, and such blatant senselessness will serve her well once this show eventually ends and her next stop on the Crazy-Chicks-Need-To-Be-Paid-Too Tour is Marriage Boot Camp, where one need not be married, but where one must be hovering somewhere near clinical insanity.
What else? Well, I believe the guy Stassi is dating is fully adorable and that these two will last. I have never been able to stop myself from getting a bit of a kick out of Stassi; I just appreciate an articulate and darkly funny woman who shows up on my television set weekly. Her boyfriend strikes me as a legitimately good guy, she strikes me as legitimately happy, and I am legitimately and actively rooting for these two in a way I once couldn’t imagine I would.
Should we now talk about James? Fine. I believe James is a lot of things (and I believe heterosexual is not one of those things), but I don’t give a single shit about his sexuality. What I think does matter is how abundantly evident it is that James lacks any positive human qualities. He is Slithering Lack. He is not an ally to women, he’s not an ally to men, and he’s not an ally to himself, but the twisted thing is that he probably thinks he’s placed himself into some weirdly enviable position because what could be more deliriously wonderful than behaving like a reality show villain for all of eternity? Quick question: How many extremely wealthy reality show villains can you name? I’m not talking about being notorious here. Notoriety is easy to attain if you’re a scum-filled carcass of bile who, without anything resembling irony, calls yourself White Kanye, but while James is known far and wide for being a flaccid prick, has he actually profited in a real way from his choice to be this much of a flagrant asshole? Because how many evenings have you stared at your own bedroom ceiling just wishing you too were under the roof of one of those exquisite two room studios a reality show D.J. managed to procure for himself by calling his coworkers old and fat?
Thinking about James – or about how the outfit he wore for the 80s party was the same exact one my sister’s friend Nicole used to wear to middle school – makes me feel queasy, so let’s move beyond his hideousness and into a few more of my Vanderpump-scented beliefs:
I believe this cast so universally adores Brittany because many of them have never once come face to face with a person who is not – at minimum – 78% walking toxicity.
I believe every single dog that appears on this show looks well cared for and they are all wholly adorable and I would like to implore their owners to never feed any of them Sparkle Dog, which is a bullshit product created by a ridiculous woman on The Real Housewives of Dallas who never once considered how difficult it would probably be to clean up glittery dogshit.
I believe Ariana is under no obligation to marry Sandoval and she should be able to figure out a way to be in a relationship that makes her happy, even if it’s unconventional. I also believe the people who tweet at her that she should get married and have babies – as if that’s the only acceptable path for a woman to take – need to quickly scrawl “The Feminine Mystique” onto their Christmas lists so maybe Santa can drop some condensed and much needed feminism down their fucking chimneys.
I believe Katie, whether she’s trashed or sober, is sort of dull, but I like the way she now stands up for herself. That shit shows true personal growth.
I believe the blonde bartender I saw interviewing for Tom Tom on the scenes for next week’s episode is one of the single hottest men I have ever stared at with amorous retinas and I just added him to my own Christmas list. As I don’t have a chimney, I hope Santa will leave him on my front porch. It’s fine if he’s not wrapped.
And based on everything I’ve seen, I believe it’s extremely likely that most of these Vanderpumpers will never procure themselves anything resembling a real job in the future, that they will appear in spinoff after spinoff, in series after series, and that every single milestone many of them achieve will not actually feel important unless that milestone is televised and accompanied by a feature in People. I believe it’s the fear of becoming irrelevant that will keep many of them bonded together, and I believe with my whole heart that I will never be able to suspend enough disbelief to believe otherwise.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter