There were many signs that last year's cheating scandal involving three cast members of "Vanderpump Rules" — Bravo's reality series built on the cheating, breakups, hookups and messy friendships of it cast — pierced into the zeitgeist to become a pop culture phenomenon. There was the way it was named Scandoval (a portmanteau of "scandal" and "Sandoval," the last name of the cast member at the center of the affair), the endless stream of TikTok videos unpacking the scuttlebutt, the way it had Hollywood stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Molly Shannon rapt, and even the coverage from legacy media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post and our own.
For Alex Baskin, executive producer of the long-running series, it was among the first times he got recognized out in public.
"I had a really strange moment when the reunion was airing," he says, referring to the three-part special, where the cast reflects on what's unfolded. "As a producer, you're anonymous, which is totally fine. I had a dinner and I go to the restaurant, and someone says to me, 'Great to see you, Mr. Baskin. I can't wait to see tomorrow night's reunion.' It was so weird for me. I remember thinking we've penetrated something; people really care that much."
In March 2023, a few weeks after the show's 10th season premiered, news hit that Tom Sandoval cheated on Ariana Madix, his girfriend of nine years, with Rachel "Raquel" Leviss, their friend and co-star on the reality series. While production on the season was completed before the drama-filled affair started making headlines, filming quickly resumed to capture the fallout. It all provided a much-needed jolt to the series that had been in a rut since its heyday early in its run.
"Five years ago, I don't know that we would have picked the cameras back up once the season ended," Baskin says. "And by the way, there was some sentiment within the cadre of people who make these decisions that we should just wait until the reunion, which was already scheduled to film three weeks after the news broke. I vehemently disagreed. Because my feeling was if we could capture that moment in real time, that would be more powerful."
Years before he was at the helm of some of Bravo’s most addictive reality series — he's also an executive producer on "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and "Real Housewives of Orange County" — Baskin got his first taste of Hollywood as a summer intern at MTV, when he was just a high school senior. Baskin eventually went on to study law, but he later realized he didn't want to actually practice law. During his time at MTV, he met with an executive at Evolution Media, a production company with a long roster of reality TV programs, and Baskin left enough of an impression to land a job there later, leading to a fruitful career in reality TV.
He left the MGM-owned company last year to launch his own, 32 Flavors, to develop and produce a range of unscripted, scripted and feature film projects.
At his home in Beverly Hills, he talked about the challenges of filming the new season (premiering Tuesday) in the wake of an explosive scandal; reality TV personalities who have become superstars; and how the Bravo fandom has evolved, becoming part of the stories on-screen.
'It doesn't get any less intense going forward'
The heated Season 10 reunion of "Vanderpump Rules" was shot at the end of March and, at one point, production thought about forgoing the usual hiatus between seasons to continue filming from the reunion into Season 11. But that idea was quickly nixed. Cameras were back up in May to shoot the new season.
"We could do less storyboarding or anticipating than we had ever done before, because we didn't know how the pieces would assemble back together — or even if they would in the first place. I will say that we were grateful for every day that we weren't shooting because we think the group needed time to recover. I thought that if the feelings were that heated that I didn't know how that would ultimately land. On the one hand, a couple of months [gap in shooting] is a long time, but it's also not. As you see [in the first two episodes], we aren't in a terribly different place. There's very little we could do here. All of the questions that we faced about how Ariana and Tom would shoot together, our feeling was, well, we just don't know. We didn't know whether Rachel was returning, so we had to kind of roll with it as it developed. We are documenting a group of people. We follow the story as it develops. I will tell you, it doesn't get any less intense going forward."
The uptick in public interest, not to mention the series landing its first-ever Emmy nominations, also gave the cast some bargaining power heading into the new season.
"This is as hard as it's ever been because typically, we have a rate card, a tenure card, we've used in prior seasons. There are all sorts of asks across the board. Something like a producer credit is off the table because that isn't something that we could open up. But otherwise, I knew that it would take a little bit of time for the cast expectations to settle. Because a lot of the time, too, we are making sure that they're aware of the state of the industry and the fact that shows are challenged these days. Their point is, rightfully, 'You guys are touting the show's success. Where is our piece of that?' Those are tough conversations. I did think that everybody, with the exception of Rachel, who had to make a personal decision, wanted to come back. Everybody did better than what they had previously gotten."
The Raquel of it all ...
Leviss, who checked herself into a facility for mental health and trauma therapy in April, ultimately decided not to return to “Vanderpump Rules” for its 11th season. She, however, remains a topic of conversation, at least in the first couple of episodes of the season.
"We had conversations with both her reps and her directly. Our first concern was how she was doing, and whether or not it made sense for her to come back — personally, emotionally. She was very conflicted about it. She expressed a concern about the way that the group would treat her or concern for being in a group situation. We said we don't expect you to be in any situation in which you don't feel safe or comfortable. There was, frankly, a lot of conversations about money. Her team was very clear that they felt that she should be rewarded. At one point, they raised the idea of her getting a development deal."
"We would have liked it [if she came back] because I think there's a great interest in how she was doing. I also think that it's the best platform for her to tell her story, more so than any podcast, but that's ultimately up to her. I think that she would have been surprised by the consideration that was given to her, and I think, as you'll see in the first episode, there was a willingness to hear her out. And I'm not saying that everything would have healed right away. But I think it would have been a different experience than she would have anticipated. I think that would have been a good story to tell. I will say on the other side of things, if she still wanted to move on from Tom and didn't want anything to do with him, then perhaps her absence allowed that to happen."
'Everywhere we went was a zoo'
"Vanderpump Rules" isn't the first reality TV series to contend with the conundrum of a cast whose real lives have outgrown the confines of a show's premise. When "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" spinoff launched in 2013, most of the cast were wait staff at a West Hollywood lounge, which was owned by then-"RHOBH" star Lisa Vanderpump, and had aspirations of making it as actors, models or music artists, but turned into celebrities with millions of social media followers and press attention through sharing their lives.
In the months after the scandal, Madix was fielding a number of opportunities, which included joining the cast of "Dancing With the Stars" and making her Broadway debut in "Chicago." The hubbub surrounding the cast, especially heading into Season 11, made filming more challenging. Baskin had to consider how much it should all factor into the season as more reality series have become less precious about maintaining the fourth wall — which separates the camera crew and viewers from what's playing out in front of the camera.
"The fact that we now break the fourth wall, routinely, has meant that there is no distinction between production and developments in real life, which means when something happens, we pick up, and we acknowledge that we've done it. I have very mixed feelings about the breaking down of the fourth wall. I'm not surprised that we got here. I think sometimes we assemble the fourth wall, as opposed to breaking it down, meaning that we create a distinction that shouldn't exist. For example, in "Housewives" to refer to the "last time that we were together as a group," it's like, let's be real about what that last time was: you were filming a reunion with Andy Cohen. On the other side of things, I'm in favor of it, when it contributes to the authenticity and the reality. I'm not in favor of it when there's a self-consciousness about it. . I've had a funny experience where there was someone we were in discussions with to join one of the "Housewives," and she wanted to be able to break the fourth wall when she wanted. She said to me, "What if I'm in a sitcom and everyone else is on 'The Real Housewives.'" I just didn't think that would work. The audience doesn't like artifice."
How much does "Vanderpump Rules" lean into it, acknowledging its cultural impact outside its Valley Village and West Hollywood bubble, this season?
"We have to because we wouldn't be able to tell the real story. If we were to frame this season just as Tom and Ariana are a couple that had the messiest breakup of all time, I don't think that's quite accurate. The truth is, Tom and Ariana are a couple that had the messiest breakup times a million and the magnitude was because of the public reaction [to it]. And Ariana's star was on the rise, and Tom's went in a different direction. We have to acknowledge that. We don't get to the point where we refer to the Emmy nomination [which was announced while the show was in production] because that's self-referential in a way that would just be a turnoff. So we're careful about that. But we do open up the fact that the very public nature of what we're doing impacts us. It was harder for us to shoot this year because everywhere we went was a zoo. At one point in our final trip, there was an incident in San Francisco [Tom Sandoval appeared to be caught in the middle of a fight]. We try to screen it out, but we do acknowledge that this is a group that has a ton of outside interest, and that actually does impact their lives and, therefore, it's a reality that we have to document."
Real-life controversies in the Bravo television universe have left fans seeking answers in real-time, often long before a new season unfolds. And a cottage industry of podcasts, as well as fan and gossip accounts have sprung up to serve them. But the latest season of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" found itself confronting the dynamic in a meta way. In the Season 4 finale, it was revealed that Monica Garcia, a new addition to the cast, is behind Reality Von Tease, an Instagram troll account that has had a history of posting negative things about the "RHOSLC" stars. It was an explosive moment that rocked the "Housewives" franchise. (Garcia will not return for the show's fifth season.) Is it great TV or a reality TV producer's nightmare? Baskin, who is not an executive producer on the series, shared his thoughts.
"It would be a nightmare. I would say that there is a 0% chance that that was set up because you would never set that up; you wouldn't put yourself in a situation in which you're confronting something that threatens your existence. I just don't think that's very smart. It's the show eating itself. You face a lot of accusations that a lot of the cast members across the shows are involved with those accounts, but not that they are those accounts and not that they infiltrated the show or the friend group. 'Vanderpump' is a little bit insulated from that versus a bunch of the other shows that I do because it's a group of real friends; outsiders don't really exist in that way. And that's something that may make good television in the moment, but on the whole, is not something you're excited about.
I don't see how that could be avoided. All the time, there are people that try out for any of the shows that very clearly are super fans. We're careful about that. We also don't love people who don't have any idea what they're signing up for. I've had a few of those. Like Diana Jenkins — it's like, 'Here's what we're making. Here's what it is.' I love the audience and the fans because their avid interest obviously feeds everything. I don't love social media, and I don't love the impact that it can end up having."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.