There’s a product on Amazon called the Baby Shusher. It’s roughly the shape of a bowling pin, bright orange and white, and—when twisting the top half—emits a loud shushing noise that’s supposed to calm down a crying baby. The loud rush of white noise counteracts their own crying and comforts them. The shushing is supposed to mimic the sound in-utero—the rushing blood of the mother’s body makes a sound louder than a vacuum cleaner—which babies have grown accustomed to in the womb.
Beyond the baby, various noises go so far back into the psyche that they provide instant comfort. Content tigers make the vocalization Prusten, otherwise known as chuffing, a staccato expulsion of hot air. The noise is used by mothers to calm their young, by two cats greeting each other, or in courting rituals. Trainers have found that mimicking Prusten keeps the tigers relaxed, and tigers often respond with chuffs when they see their human keepers.
For me, reality television is my Baby Shusher. It’s what I entertained myself with this past snow day. I can put on the sounds of relatively wealthy white women fighting and my anxiety goes from a boil to a simmer, my dopamine levels spike, and I become as docile as the doped-up kid from that YouTube video going, “Is this real life?”
You might think that someone with anxiety and depression would respond poorly to the sounds of people fighting. And largely, that’s true—in real life. But there’s something so deeply ingrained in my soul that reacts to people fighting that when I hear it through the computer screen, it sinks into the core of my bones like a warm bath. Likes call to likes, and external anxiety only serves to relax my internal anxiety.
I’ve started watching Vanderpump Rules this season. I’m a Real Housewives devotee, but Pump seemed too messy—too much drama and not even wealth—for me to engage in. And that’s true: two of the cast members live in an apartment where you can’t have the air conditioning on at the same time as the microwave because the power will go out. One person regularly has his credit card declined—though he had enough money to pay for plastic surgery to get rid of the lumps in his over-pumped pecs from “taking too many supplements” (wink, wink).
But strangely, once you get past the fact that none of them are likeable—even remotely likeable—which I previously thought was a must for watching reality television, I was irrevocably hooked. And now, I would go so far as to even say that Vanderpump Rules is possibly the greatest reality TV show…ever.
It’s six-to-eight servers (SURvers) at a popular West Hollywood bar who are all aspiring “models” or “actors” or “singers” but they’re in their mid-thirties. They get drunk and fight; get coked out and fight; fuck each other’s sig-others and fight; get engaged and fight; go to charity events and fight. And yet, they’re tied together in a Rat King-like tangle of limbs. Extricate one and they all die.
The editing, the tacit conversation between the producers and the audience, as we both watch these dicks drown in their own incompetence, proves more comedic than any Comedy Central special and more masterful than any Oscar nominee.
Usually there’s a Point of No Return for reality television where it gets so dark that it’s not even funny anymore. One example might be Teresa Giudice going to jail for her husband’s tax evasion. Or Kim Richards getting arrested for shoplifting at Target. These are moments so dark that they pull at the internal meat of our hearts—going beyond pathos or empathy and turning into complete, heart-rending disgust and sorrow.
But for some reason, because you start out hating every single character on Vanderpump Rules, there is no moment too dark to take pleasure in. It’s Schadenfreude at its finest. Not when Scheana is talking about how she and her husband went to couples’ therapy once and didn’t need it ever again—knowing that months later, he would clear out her bank account and go Zero Dark Thirty on her, ending in a nasty divorce. Not when Toms Sandoval and Schwartz are literally sobbing—in full drag—at Schwartz’s New Orleans bachelor party because he hates his fiancée so vehemently. Not when Stassi gets turned off by a guy because while he’s not “murder-y,” he’s not “manslaughter-y” enough for her.
I watch these people go from bad to worse—furthering down the path of irredeemable-ness—and instead of being turned off, it soothes me in such a deep way it’s scary. It’s the reflection and fulfillment of your own oilslick soul playing out in (relative) real time, while you can nestle into your comforter and just watch the trainwreck smolder. The sounds of their fighting—over boys and money and liquor bottles at clubs—unlocks my rigid spine and ungirds my muscles until I’m a dazed, big-eyed mess.