On the surface, CBS’ legal drama The Good Wife and Bravo’s reality series Vanderpump Rules seem to exist in completely different TV galaxies. At the height of its fifth season, the former was the best drama on network television, a critically acclaimed masterpiece that stood high above everything else CBS offered in its primetime lineup. The latter is a Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills spinoff about a bunch of beautiful and volatile young people who work in a West Hollywood dining establishment called, without a hint of irony, Sexy Unique Restaurant (or SUR). Robert and Michelle King would likely balk at any comparisons of their prestige procedural to something from the frothy and filthy oeuvre of Andy Cohen.
But it doesn’t take much digging to reveal that The Good Wife and Vanderpump Rules are cut from the same cloth. One’s scripted and one’s reality, but they’re both character dramas where one woman’s arc fuels the narrative’s core. For The Good Wife, that woman is Alicia Florrick, the lawyer who stood by her cheating, corrupt husband for personal and then political reasons and built a successful legal career of her own in Chicago. Vanderpump Rules has a complicated hero of its own: Stassi Schroeder, the young woman who once said she wanted to chop her best friends’ faces off with daggers and hide them in the walls.
Alicia doesn’t use as many specific, graphic threats (though there was that one time when she told Matthew Perry’s character, politician Mike Kresteva, to die choking on his own blood) as the highly expressive Stassi, but the characters’ arcs have followed remarkably similar trajectories, starting in their respective first seasons when both women were betrayed by the men they loved. SUR bartender and Vanderpump Rules villain Jax Taylor shares Peter Florrick’s busted moral compass (not to mention the same slicked-back hair and fake tan). He’s a cheater, a compulsive liar, and the fruits of his depraved labor are out there for the world to see, because when Jax is caught in a lie, it happens around cameras. He’s by no means a public figure in the same way the fictional Governor Florrick is, but Jax is a Bravolebrity, and as a result, his dirty laundry is on dazzling display, forcing Stassi to deal with his bullshit without the benefit of privacy, much like Alicia has to do throughout The Good Wife. After their initial attempts to make things work, both women drop their loser men, with Alicia staying technically married to Peter but emotionally and psychologically divorcing him. Stassi goes a more direct route, telling Jax she can’t be with him unless he meets her demands and regains her trust. The breakup ends up sticking. Over time, both Alicia and Stassi shed the burden of their “good wife” and “good girlfriend” titles, their journeys both reflecting just how stupid and limiting those labels are in the first place.
Then, Alicia and Stassi are both betrayed by their best friends. In the early days of The Good Wife, Alicia only had one friend: Kalinda Sharma, the enigmatic private investigator who never wastes words and always sports high boots and leather jackets. In season two, Alicia finds out that Kalinda slept with Peter. Suddenly, Alicia’s post-work drinking buddy and confidante became another one of her husband’s extramarital affairs. Though it happened before Kalinda even knew Alicia, it hurts her too much, especially because Kalinda kept it from her for so long. Their falling-out ends up radically changing the show’s narrative.
Vanderpump Rules also dropped a bomb on its narrative in season two, when rumors surfaced that Stassi’s best friend Kristen Doute—a self-proclaimed amateur private investigator who meticulously surveils and collects evidence against the men she dates—had slept with Jax. Those rumors, as with most rumors whispered through the dark, purple-hued chambers of SUR, turned out to be true. Though it happened while Jax and Stassi were broken up, it hurts her too much, especially because Kristen lied about it for so long. Their friendship dissolves, and Stassi quits her job at SUR. Vanderpump Rules was never the same.
Like Alicia eventually going off to start her own firm, Stassi eventually leaves the show to do her own thing, moving to New York with her new boyfriend. Both women try to make their new lives work, but in the current seasons of both shows, Alicia and Stassi find themselves back where they started. They’re certainly different people than they were in the beginning: Alicia has let go of all inhibitions, living her best, most liberated life. Stassi, somewhat inversely, has returned to West Hollywood with more humility and the willingness to forgive, and to admit when she’s wrong. (Those are huge strides for someone who once said “I like to compare myself to King Henry The Eighth—once you fuck up, off with your head.”) But Alicia’s back at the firm she left, once again subject to the paranoid and snaky politics that she tried to run away from in the first place. And Stassi’s back on Vanderpump Rules, doing an apology tour of sorts, suddenly all up in the turbulent friendship politics she also tried to run from. Alicia and Stassi are back, and despite the bullshit they have to deal with again, they’re better than ever. After Alicia’s failed campaign last season and Stassi’s vanishing act, both women needed a comeback, and they got one.
There are, of course, a few glaring differences between Alicia and Stassi—namely that one is a fictional character and one is a real person. One exists in a completely scripted world cooked up by people in a writers’ room. The other is a girl from New Orleans who lives among us in reality. Reality stars are usually called “personalities,” not characters. But Bravo’s success is built on its understanding that reality television should have the same basic components as scripted dramas. This brand of reality television is best digested once you stop caring about reality. No one turns on Bravo hoping to find a familiar, naturalistic world. The sprawling Real Housewives universe is full of fantasy and lacking in logic, and swan-diving into its frilly abyss requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Bravo has perfected the narrative reality television genre by building an empire of truly character-driven shows. Drama on its own isn’t enough to hook viewers. Drama needs compelling characters to sell it. Every Housewives show is only as good as its housewives.
As a reality star, Stassi is both the character and the actress. Her duality, at least, isn’t nearly as contradictory as that of SUR owner/Vanderpump Rules executive producer Lisa Vanderpump, who shouldn’t want her employees fucking and fighting because it’s bad for business and yet who definitely should want her employees fucking and fighting because it’s great for show business. Part of the appeal of Stassi has always been that she seems to be in on the ruse. She’s playing a character, a version of herself that she knows people want to see. Her over-the-top threats and one-liners all perfectly fit the heightened world of Vanderpump Rules. And yet she doesn’t overdo it like some of her Vanderpump co-stars (Tom Sandoval is painful in his hamfisted attempts to produce drama).
As Stassi is the Vanderpump cast member most cognizant of the fact that she’s on a reality show, that paradoxically makes her the show’s realest character. Everyone is trying to get out of SUR by way of their sweater and T-shirt lines, their music and modeling careers. Stassi is the only one who gets the hell out of SUR and out of the vicious, circular mayhem of Vanderpump Rules. It’s easy to root for her. Even at her meanest, she has always been the most grounded, the straight-shooter in a sea of liars.
Vanderpump Rules really is a character drama at its core, with SUR housing just as much tension and pathos as the fictional law firm at the center of The Good Wife. The shows even tackle similar themes, closely examining the thorny space where professional and personal lives tangle. Alicia, Diane, and Cary have all, at some point, become sexually and romantically involved with colleagues. The employees at SUR apparently only hook up with people within their SUR family. Vanderpump Rules has never been a show about what it’s like to work in the restaurant industry, but it has many times explored what happens when you have to keep working with someone you screwed or who screwed you over.
The two shows deliver these themes in much different packaging. The Good Wife gets off on subtlety and subtext. The characters don’t always say what they mean. Some of the show’s most explosive moments have happened quietly in elevators. Things couldn’t be more different on Vanderpump Rules, where everyone says exactly what they mean, and loudly (Kristen once said with complete sincerity that she was plotting to break up her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend). Kalinda silently sobs on an elevator when the truth comes out about her and Peter, but Kristen gets straight-up backhanded by Stassi when the truth comes out about her and Jax.
Although The Good Wife and Vanderpump Rules are tonally and structurally different, it’s very possible—easy, even—to engage with them in the same way as a viewer. Great drama is great drama, no matter what form it comes in. Stassi and Alicia both provide an intimate look at what happens when workplace relationships complicate things, the challenges of redefining yourself, and the expectations placed on women to be “good.” The Good Wife has been, at times, an ensemble show, but in its final season, it’s all about Alicia Florrick—for better or worse. Season four of Vanderpump Rules, which concludes this week, wasn’t really all about Stassi, but it should have been. Other storylines dominated the season, but the all-over-the-place antics of newcomers James Kennedy and Lala Kent have made it clear how badly the show needed Stassi. They play the game too erratically, too desperately. As produced as it may be (hopefully, we’ve all seen UnREAL at this point), Stassi provides a real story. She’s a deeply flawed hero. Her absence on the show for the first half of this season was as glaring as if Alicia were to suddenly disappear from The Good Wife (something that has actually happened to quite a few characters on The Good Wife—shoutout to Robyn, wherever she is). Vanderpump Rules needs Stassi. She’s both the best dramatic actress and best character it’s got.