When it comes to a TV show, the worst reaction it can get is apathy. Even if you hate a series, at least that means it made you feel something — and gave you something to talk about. And good lord, did the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills give fans quite a lot to discuss this season.
Starting in September, five months before Beverly Hills' ninth season premiered on Bravo, the current cycle of side-picking and impassioned fan debates began when Radar Online first broke the story of what has come to be known as Puppygate. But little did we know then that the ramifications of this "scandal" would alter the trajectory of the entire reality series and turn friends against each other, both on the show and in real life.
When you explain the concept of Puppygate to non-Bravo people, it's understandably hard for them to grasp how this could be such a catastrophic deal. At its core, what happened is simple: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Dorit Kemsley adopted a dog from co-star Lisa Vanderpump's rescue center, Vanderpump Dogs, but the puppy, Lucy Lucy Apple Juice, wound up in a shelter after Dorit allegedly gave it to an acquaintance. Fellow castmate Teddi Mellencamp claimed Vanderpump conspired to punish Dorit for this (as well for calling LVP needy in Season 8) on camera with an elaborate setup involving two men (John Blizzard and John Sessa). Any hopes that the women would be able to move forward from this (rather dull) controversy were squashed when news about what happened to Lucy Lucy Apple Juice broke in the press, with all of LVP's co-stars in agreement that Vanderpump leaked the story to further punish Dorit, as well as to get the chance to play hero by immediately going to TMZ to defend her former friend. Never one to admit to any wrongdoing, LVP went nuclear after her oldest friend in the cast, Kyle Richards, admitted to believing that Vanderpump leaked the story to Radar Online, prompting LVP and her husband Ken Todd to kick Kyle out of their house — and their lives.
Since that dramatic meeting, with the exception of a handful of short meetups with side characters in this rodeo, Lisa Vanderpump hasn't filmed with the rest of the cast of Beverly Hills. (Andy Cohen has gone on the record saying he isn't even sure if LVP will even attend the end-of-season reunion taping, which will likely be filmed in the coming weeks.) So instead of seeing the show operate on all cylinders, viewers are losing out on time with the rest of the cast (who are consistently delivering this season, thanks in part to the ray of light that is Denise Richards) because we need to habitually check in on Lisa while she renovates her kitchen and tries to make John Sessa enough of a draw to help launch a potential Vanderpump Dogs spin-off.
So why is this dog drama so divisive?
On the one hand, this is what Real Housewives fandom is all about: picking your side and defending it to the death (even if you wind up switching sides every other week). These shows are designed to inspire laughter, anger, empathy, embarrassment — whatever the producers want us to feel — at a heightened level because the people inspiring these emotions are operating on such an over-the-top scale, often without any awareness of this fact. Half the fun of being a Housewives fan is debating the latest "controversy" with fellow viewers, cheering on your favorite Housewife, and rooting against your least favorites, much like the trash-talking that goes down between sports fans.
For some of Vanderpump's most devoted fans, they feel they can't stand idly by why their favorite Housewife is slandered. For other Beverly Hills fans — as well as some of the show's stars — Puppygate feels like retribution for the many times Lisa escaped accountability in the past, including a Season 2 accusation that Vanderpump leaked stories to Radar Online. (A guest on the Housewives podcast Bitch Sesh compared Puppygate to when Al Capone went down for tax evasion, which nicely explains why LVP's co-stars seemed so eager to band together against her early in the season.)
But understanding what really seems to be striking a nerve about Puppygate requires breaking the fourth wall and digging into how this show is made — something not all fans enjoy doing. It's been said for years, both on camera and in the fandom, that Vanderpump is the puppet master behind Beverly Hills, setting up her co-stars for messy storylines and then pretending she played no part, leaking stories to the press, and lying to protect her image at all cost. Lisa has always vehemently denied all of this, but most fans not only acknowledge how Vanderpump has seemingly orchestrated so much of the show's best storylines, they respect her for it. The general consensus on LVP is that she's a star and a producer, even if she isn't officially credited as such. And a common defense of her in this Puppygate mess is that, even if she doesn't "own it," as her co-star Lisa Rinna would say, at least Vanderpump has been giving us entertaining television for years, and we shouldn't ostracize the woman for giving us what we want.
Yet now, with Vanderpump refusing to film with the cast or participate in any group trips, the stakes of Puppygate have been raised to dramatic new heights. Because this isn't just about whether or not you think Lisa Vanderpump conspired to punish Dorit on TV and in the press; it's about whether or not the show can survive without Lisa Vanderpump. If fences don't get mended soon — and it's not looking likely (LVP is notoriously stubborn) — it's hard to imagine Lisa returning to Beverly Hills next season. And given how much the show has revolved around Lisa, and the drama she allegedly helped curate, the question of whether there even is a show without her is a valid one.
That's why, even more so than the debate over whether or not Game of Thrones' final season was good, the arguments about Puppygate feel urgent and emotionally raw. Because it's not really about whether someone lied or not; it's about whether the entire future of this show is now in jeopardy if we lose LVP. Real Housewives franchises have lost their biggest stars before; NeNe and Bethenny temporarily left Atlanta and New York, respectively, before ultimately returning, and these cities did just fine in their absence. And if you ask me, what this season is really proving, even if LVP and her fans won't ever admit it, is that Beverly Hills doesn't need Lisa anymore.
As her co-stars have caught on to her manipulations in recent seasons and become less forgiving and more frustrated with her actions (Rinna in particular), these tensions haven't helped the show; they've hurt it. Because every woman in Beverly Hills — even Teddi — is giving the show her all. Everyone, that is, except Lisa, who is playing the game behind the scenes but refusing to admit that she's right down in the muck with the rest of them. Lisa has always acted as though she was above so much of the petty drama the show is based on. But now, her actions have become sweaty and strained, unlike those of the effortless, nonchalant diva we once dreamed of sipping rosé with.
This is why Puppygate feels like an inevitable culmination of nearly nine years of drama and emotional investment in these women and their relationships. As the show and dynamics between the cast evolved, Vanderpump refused to adapt, preferring instead to obstinately cling to control and the way she handled things in the past. And while, if Lisa is innocent as she claims, we can understand why she'd be so offended by her co-stars' accusations, any patience I once had has been worn out as Puppygate is dragged out into a season-long slog that feels wholly unnecessary. If the women of Orange County can forgive Vicki for whatever role she may have played in covering up Brooks faking cancer, then why the hell are we having to watch Lisa Vanderpump take a lie detector with John Sessa while everyone else is having a blast in Hawaii?
Even if Lisa didn't have a hand in Puppygate, her ostracization from the cast is of her own making, and it's hard to accept that this is what is actually best for her public image, the show, or the fandom. Maybe that's the real reason Housewives fans are so volatile when it comes to Puppygate: Like the women we're yelling about, we're really just exhausted by this whole situation and taking this out on each other as a means to pass the time until the show gives us something else to talk about.
Or maybe it's just because we all genuinely care far too much about a tiny Chihuahua mix named Lucy Lucy Apple Juice.