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Vanderpump Villa Beats Below Deck at Its Own Game

With Lisa Vanderpump at the helm, the Hulu series serves up an intoxicating cocktail of hospitality-industry drama and interpersonal conflict.
  • Chef Anthony Bar and Lisa Vanderpump in Vanderpump Villa (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Hulu)
    Chef Anthony Bar and Lisa Vanderpump in Vanderpump Villa (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Hulu)

    Vanderpump Villa may be the latest entry in Lisa Vanderpump's empire, but it has far more in common with Bravo's Below Deck franchise than her flagship series Vanderpump Rules, particularly in its current form.

    After making a name for herself in the West Hollywood restaurant scene, Lisa has taken her talents to the French countryside, setting up shop in an extravagant estate, Chateau Rosabelle. There, Lisa and her staff of hand-picked hotties — who have variable levels of service experience but share a commitment to making good TV — provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for their guests, all while dealing with the interpersonal conflicts and romances that develop when living with co-workers. Chateau Rosabelle's staff quarters are slightly roomier than a sub-sea level cabin, but the same tensions flare as rivalries emerge within departments, crushes break up friendships, and the employees scramble to impress Lisa, who takes an active role in the proceedings as master curator.

    Below Deck took full advantage of the live-work-and-play format a decade ago, when it first premiered on Bravo, but in recent years, the franchise has struggled to find a fresh way into the drama. Though each spin-off features a few returning faces beyond the captains, cast turnover (and in the case of Mediterranean Season 8, casting itself) remains an issue, and the constant cycle of demanding guests, on-board crises, and drunken nights out has begun to feel repetitive. Save for the love triangle between Sailing Yacht's Daisy Kelliher, Gary King, and Colin MacRae, the franchise's most notable moment of the year came when Down Under producers stepped in to prevent two instances of inappropriate behavior, including a potential sexual assault, among the crew.

    The show's steady decline has created an opening in this particular reality TV subgenre, and Vanderpump Villa is more than ready to fill it. Lisa's attention to detail is apparent not just in the activities and tablescapes she dreams up for her guests, but in the cast. (The restaurateur serves as an executive producer under her Villa Rosa banner.) Her staff is composed of your usual suspects: There's underqualified chateau manager Eric Funderwhite and the events coordinator who was passed over for the managerial role, Stephen Alsvig; headstrong mixologist Telly Hall, who immediately breaks Lisa's no-alcohol-while-working rule; and fun-loving server Priscila Ferrari. But in a smart move, casting directors have also recruited former couple Marciano Brunette and Hannah Fouch, who work in the same department as servers. Hannah and Marciano dated for three years but broke up due to his persistent infidelity — though that hasn't stopped them from hooking up occasionally, as Hannah explains, or drunkenly declaring their feelings for each other.

    Marciano and Hannah are volatile enough on their own — Marciano is an egomaniac who proudly reveals his old job established an anti-fraternization policy because he "slept with an extraordinary amount of employees," while Hannah is a ball of insecurity — but together, they're the equivalent of a bomb that's thrown into the staff quarters. Their familiarity further inflames brewing conflicts, as becomes the case at the end of the premiere, when Marciano, egged on by Hannah's complaints about being made to "look bad" in front of the guests, and Telly get into a physical altercation about the delay in drink service.

    Later, the effects of Marciano's infidelity seep into the group dynamic after Hannah declares an innocent interaction between him and Priscila, who lies across from Marciano on the couch, to be "really offensive." (In Hannah's mind, Priscila is "sitting spread-eagle," a position she finds "disrespectful," given her history with Marciano.) The situation spirals during their first night off: When Priscila asks why Hannah doesn't care that Gabriella Sanon is sitting with "spread-out legs" but made a scene when she sat within a few feet of Marciano hours earlier, Hannah starts a screaming fight. "You're acting like a fake-ass b*tch to me!" she yells at a bewildered Priscila as Marciano tries, and fails, to de-escalate the dispute.

    These moments propel the first three episodes of Vanderpump Villa forward, but neither would be as intense if not for Marciano and Hannah's preexisting baggage. Their relationship adds an additional layer of tension to a situation already teeming with possibilities, ensuring the Hulu series gets off to a fast start from the minute the opening credits roll.

    The staff's interpersonal issues complicate Lisa's effort to create unforgettable experiences for her guests. Though the circumstances that bring them to Chateau Rosabelle differ, the guests featured in the first three episodes travel there for far more meaningful reasons than the endless girls' trips or retirement parties featured on Below Deck. Their personal stories, particularly that of a trans woman celebrating her recent facial feminization surgery with a "rebirth" ball, automatically raise the stakes for the staff: Messing up a beach picnic is one thing, but derailing a proposal that's been in the works for months is something else entirely. Employees who fail to execute Lisa's vision — or worse, put forth their own — receive a tongue-lashing from their boss, though she finds plenty of time to play therapist (to both the guests and the staff) in between disciplinary hearings.

    Vanderpump Villa doesn't just carry on the legacy of Below Deck — it takes the familiar format and improves on it. As Bravo's sea-faring franchise continues to sputter, Lisa Vanderpump's new series makes for a bingeable alternative that serves up an intoxicating cocktail of hospitality-industry drama and chateau-mances, set against a luxurious backdrop that would make even Captain Sandy swoon.

    New episodes of Vanderpump Villa drop Mondays on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Vanderpump Villa, Hulu, Below Deck, Lisa Vanderpump, Reality TV