Recently, Bravo premiered a trailer for a new series called The Valley. The show is being marketed as a spinoff of Vanderpump Rules, mostly because it features former show stars Jax Taylor, his wife Brittany Cartwright, and the ever controversial Kristen Doute. Typically, new Bravo shows are met by anxious fans, hungry to dive into reality’s next adventure, but this premiere seemed to raise a lot of eyebrows.
On reality gossip blogs sharing the sneak peak, comment sections were full of apprehensive, confused fans who wondered two things – first, why the network was pitching this as a show about reformed party animals finally stepping into adulthood, despite Jax nearing 50. But also, why yet another mostly white cast, whose main stars were fired from Vanderpump Rules due to racist and anti-LGBTQ views, are now being given the spotlight, particularly after the network’s decision to axe, or pause, wildly successful shows like Family Karma and Shahs of Sunset, which gave a rare look into the lives of Indian and Persian-Americans.
I’m sure we can all recall that back in 2020, there was a huge spike in conversations about race and discrimination after the murder of George Floyd. Within that phenomenon, reality TV faced its own reckoning, with a lot of stars from different shows, marginalized either by race or sexuality, coming forward about disturbing experiences they had with their colleagues, production and fans alike, and how racism and discrimination was such a huge part of their daily lives.
Arguably one of the most notable examples of this was back in December 2020, when a particularly interesting episode of Southern Charm aired. In it, castmates attended the removal of a statue of former vice president John C. Calhoun, an ancestor of cast member Kathryn Dennis, who had also come under fire for sending a monkey emoji to a Black radio host around the same time. John was vehement in his pro-slavery and white supremacy views and was famous for saying that slavery was not “evil”, but a “positive good”.
Earlier that same year, Jax was called out for having a history of making problematic remarks about the LGBTQ community. And in addition to that, one of the show’s major storylines became about him and Brittany having to dismiss her Kentucky pastor from marrying them because he was homophobic. It wasn’t until weeks before the wedding, when Tom Sandoval and Lisa Vanderpump called the couple out on having a homophobic pastor marry them, did they decide to give him the boot.
Then, Kristen and Stassi Schroeder were fired from the show over proudly proclaiming on a now-deleted podcast episode that they called the police, without reason, on one of the only Black castmates in Vanderpump Rules history, Faith Stowers. They had spoken about it before, of course, but when it was revisited in 2020 by outraged fans, the network decided to cut them off.
When Bravo announced its list of shows being renewed for the 2023-2024 season, fans noticed Family Karma was not on the list and raised questions about it. Forums about the glaring omission seem to suggest that the show was never officially cancelled, just put on some sort of hiatus. That was not the case with Shahs of Sunset, though, which was actually cancelled after an impressive nine-season run. At the time, TMZ cited production sources saying the show had simply “run its course”. But fans were quick to point out the uncanny timing between the show being cancelled and the arrest of Mike Shouhed for alleged domestic violence.
Despite the variation in reasoning, these two shows are part of a larger phenomenon in recent years of TV shows surrounding a racialized or marginalized cast with rarely-told storylines being cancelled. There’s a parallel experience happening both in and outside of reality TV.
Just yesterday, it was announced that Issa Rae’s Rap Sh!t has been cancelled at Max. Despite a high score on Rotten Tomatoes, the network has cut the show after its two-season run. That was also the fate of shows like Reservation Dogs, a comedy chronicling the lives of Indigenous teens growing up on a reserve in Oklahoma, and Our Flag Means Death, another high-scoring show on Rotten Tomatoes, praised for its queer storylines and the “inclusive community” that the show helped build around it. And last year, I wrote about the heartbreaking cancellation of A Black Lady Sketch Show, despite its historic award nominations and wins.
A lot of people, myself included, predicted this. In 2020, there was an apparent overnight shift in attitude toward inclusivity in our immediate environments, like our workplaces, but also in the world of entertainment. Despite high hopes it would all continue, part of me always questioned the sustainability of the momentum, which I feared would fizzle out at some point.
We’re seeing that happen in the world of TV right now. And not just with Black or Indigenous shows, but TV in general. A lot is changing thanks to the bursting of the streaming bubble, which this 2023 Vanity Fair article asserts had a lot to do with Netflix starting to stream originals – amongst a slew of other reasons. In the late 2010s, and especially at the height of 2020 when so many people were stuck at home with nothing to do but watch TV, we saw a vested interest in inclusive storytelling and giving platforms to writers whose stories might not have otherwise seen the light of day became unsustainable. But that would ultimately result in shows like Rap Sh!t, Reservation Dogs, Our Flag and A Black Lady Sketch Show becoming some of the early casualties.
So what does it mean that in the wake of the most drastic cuts to programming we’ve seen in recent history, that even outside of the scripted stuff, a bigot like Jax is getting his own show? What does it mean that a woman like Kristen can come back from being cancelled less than four years after admitting to putting a Black woman in a potentially dangerous situation – with no reason at all?
To me, it means that in both worlds, there are certain stories that matter and certain stories that don’t. That stories have to look a certain way in order to matter in the first place, to be worth the risk, to be worth the pilot – and especially to be worth continued storytelling.
“What’s being cut big-time is development. And that’s where most of this town is. ‘I’m working on a project.’ How often have you heard that?” a former studio executive asked Vanity Fair in that article I mentioned.
And that is the cost of these shows being cut – reality or not. The lack of opportunity to develop, to explore, to share stories we don’t often hear, and to maintain the status quo of the ones we do.