By now, most television obsessives have learned that it’s never a good idea to even suggest that a new show could replace a massively beloved one.
J.J. Abrams’ defunct Fox drama about Alcatraz was never going to be the new LOST. New Girl wasn’t the second coming of Friends. As good as it is, Better Call Saul isn’t the new Breaking Bad. And if you think any upcoming fantasy series is primed to garner the same feverish following of Game of Thrones, you’re fooling yourself. But knowing all this, I’m going to go out on a limb and do exactly what I’ve just proved a fruitless endeavor, because like it or not, Vanderpump Rules might actually be the new Friends. Obviously, one is an Emmy-winning sitcom and the other is a Bravo reality show featuring a gang that won’t truly grow up until there crying babies involved, but hear me out.
No, the Bravo spinoff of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills is not the most popular show on television, with millions upon millions of viewers all tuning in at the exact same time each episode (that honor belongs to shows like The Masked Singer, This Is Us, and until recently The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones). No, stars Lala Kent, Stassi Schroeder, and Tom Sandoval aren’t walking the Emmys red carpet, dating A-listers like Brad Pitt, or gracing the covers of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. And no, Vanderpump Rules isn’t even a scripted series, or a sitcom (though Lala's baby bottle ritual reveal got damn close). But the mistake in trying to place the “new” version of a major TV series is trying to make that unflinchingly direct comparison in the first place.
The things that made Friends Friends weren’t the dollars and cents, but the dysfunctional, mildly offensive (Ugly Naked Guy was messed up, even in the ‘90s), neurotic, self-involved, and yet entirely lovable humans at its center.
We Begin With The Struggle
Beyond its glitz and over 50 million viewers (per episode) was a less quantifiable reason that Friends felt like such a moment on television. Sure, the cast was gorgeous. It let us live our Manhattan dream apartment fantasies. And yes, it was conveniently aired on Thursdays, the point in every week where some levity and a dash of drama are exactly what everyone needs. But the real nugget of connection — the reason we all found such comfort in this show — was because it wasn’t about characters with extraordinary abilities, high powered jobs, or keen crime-solving skills. No one was an expert at anything and in fact, their lives were in absolute shambles. The series introduced us to six struggling twentysomethings whose lots in life were the exact reasons the term “quarter life crisis” exists.
Monica had dreams of owning a restaurant, but could barely keep her job at a ‘50s diner where her fake boobs catching fire was a totally expected workplace hazard. Joey was an actor taking odd jobs and lying on his resume. Rachel was a runaway bride with no work experience and no money. Phoebe was a vagabond and part-time masseuse with no discernable career path, but an incredible knack for always keeping her head above water. Even the more established friends, Ross and Chandler, were forever unable to figure out their personal lives, despite appearing somewhat settled in their professional pursuits.
When we first meet the Vanderpump crew, they’re struggling through a similar series of endeavors. Because it’s LA, we see far more aspiring actresses and models than say, paleontologists or transponsters, but the feeling is much the same. Scheana Marie, who starts the series as “woman who slept with Real Housewife Brandi Glanville’s husband”, struggles to find her footing as the newest waitress at SUR, Lisa Vanderpump’s Sexy Unique Restaurant in West Hollywood. She has dreams of being a pop star, but as we watch her first big show at a grimy venue on Sunset Boulevard, the vibe is more Joey Tribbiani playing the sexy cologne guy at the mall than Joey Tribbiani as Drake Ramore on Days of Our Lives.
We have our modern day Ross and Rachel in Jax Taylor and Stassi Schroeder — two people who seem inexplicably linked from episode 1, and whose messy, youthful, lusty romance initially tied the whole thing together. (Unlike the Friends mainstay, this one-time couple eventually figured out that their relationship was actually wildly unhealthy, and have since wisely moved on.) Filtered into the mix are the faces of Katie Maloney (now Katie Maloney-Schwartz) and Kristen Doute, who had their share of relationship melodrama and dreams unfulfilled, however vaguely — much like our first encounters with Phoebe and Chandler.
The Vanderpump set feels like the snarky, millennial answer to the Friends crew, moving the struggle from Twentysomethings In The Big City to near-adults struggling to make it big at a time when gaining Instagram followers is a legitimate industry and the mere act of being on television feels like it could actually be the first step of the rest of your life.
Then There Are The Apartments
The crew in Friends certainly started from the bottom and worked their way up, and while they didn’t move all that much, their apartments were still works in progress. Joey and Chandler’s place went from a bachelor pad in which the only prized possession were two leather Lazy Boys and farm birds were considered acceptable pets, to an apartment you might actually refer to as “adult.” And while Monica’s place was always just a little too chic for a struggling young person, it came with an asterisk: she didn’t actually find or earn this West Village palace because it actually belonged to her late grandmother. It was the 1998 version of a 27-year-old whose parents still pay for their phone bill.
And despite living in literal La La Land, the ‘Pump Rules kids take this struggle to the next level by showcasing their very real, very dingy apartments in the first few seasons. They’re the kinds of places you just know are filled with hand-me-down furniture or items picked up at a local thrift store. Scheana’s first place included passe recliners and the kinds of light fixtures you might expect to see in a ‘90s dentist office. In Tom Sandoval’s first poorly lit West Hollywood home, the microwave and the window AC running at the same time would bring the entire electrical system screeching to a halt.
The Petty, Messy Drama
Friends’ biggest debate, to this day, is whether or not Rachel and Ross were actually on a break. The duo, torn apart by Rachel’s relationship with her co-worker Mark, took… let’s call it “a breather” to avoid having to start this debate all over again. In that short time apart, Ross hooked up with a girl from the local copy store, lied about it, and then got caught. Thus began one of the most dramatic, surprisingly heartbreaking fights in sitcom history. As Ross and Rachel fought, their friends listened in from the other room, trapped by the sheer weight of the argument (and the fact that they chose to hide rather than leave in the first place). It was epic, it was dramatic, it was salacious, and honestly, a bit skeezy. But ultimately, it mostly just felt a little too real. Too personal.
Vanderpump Rules, for its part, has actually had a string of these romantic come-to-Jesus moments in its early seasons — each one more shocking than the last. In season 1, it all hinged on master liar Jax attempting to convince everyone that he had not, in fact, cheated on Stassi in Vegas. (He totally did.) In season 2, the level of drama escalates when the season long mystery of whether or not Tom cheated on Kristen with the new SUR bartender, Ariana, takes center stage. (It sure seemed like he did.) Season 3 sees Kristen attempt to expose new ex Tom for cheating on Ariana. (This one’s conclusion is unclear, much like Ross’ mystery break.)
Where Friends took audiences into a scandalous, worst case scenario that would break any couple and somehow managed to keep its titular gang from imploding, Vanderpump Rules essentially said, “Hold my beer.”
And Finally, There’s The Part Where Everyone Grows Up
And by the time the Friends finale aired in 2004, after 10 seasons, our crew seemed like actual, bona fide adults. They figured it all out. They’d found meaningful relationships, four of them, with each other. Monica and Chandler were buying a house. Ross and Rachel were making career and life decisions based on their relationship and their ability to co-parent. Even Phoebe had found her own version of The Dream for a thirtysomething in 2004: she was vaguely financially stable and married to Paul Rudd.
Now, as Vanderpump Rules approaches its eighth season, many of the long-time stars are in similar spots. Two couples are married, three own homes together, another — Stassi and new Vanderpump recruit Beau Clark — just got engaged. Lala's fiancé isn’t technically a cast member, but she’s gotten in on the grown-up wave by moving in with him and planning her own wedding. On the professional side, the Toms are part owners in a wildly successful bar and restaurant, Tom Tom, of which Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are major fans. Sandoval and Ariana just released their own book of cocktail recipes. Stassi has a podcast so successful she’s currently taking it on tour and her mission to create an annual day for the hashtag #OOTD (outfit of the day) resulted in a clothing line with JustFab. Sure, not everything is going off without a hitch — Kristen’s James Mae t-shirt line is still working on taking the fashion world by storm and Scheana’s podcast is constantly dealt the blow of being compared to Stassi’s hit show, but if you recall, Friends’ Joey eventually moved out to LA to build his still budding movie career, so not everyone lands in a perfect, ideal spot.
But, unlike the Friends — who’ve broken hearts by stating unequivocally, that they are never ever ever getting back together — the Vanderpump crew aren’t calling it quits any time soon, if ever. Stassi has even said she’ll be out here on Bravo, giving birth on television when the time comes and even if Bravo tires of their drama, each of these reality stars has built their own million-deep followings that ensure fans will have eons of Instagram stories to consume.
Vanderpump Rules may not have taken the full nation by storm the way six Manhattanites once did, but this dream of the ‘90s is alive in Los Angeles. And it’s milking it for all its worth.