The politics of Below Deck
It’s common to describe the Below Deck franchise as Downton Abbey at sea. That gives Downton Abbey too much credit.
The average American is a secret elitist, so of course we made a TV-to-film sensation out of Downton’s tender ode to the nobility of nobles. Kindly stuff every Crawley up your Grantham, and flush all fictional sweetheart aristocrats who care about the omnipresent servants who love them. Who writes this vapid self-regarding tripe? Oh, right, a Brexit-loving Baron with a seat on the House of Lords. Gotcha.
Give me the sexy social stratospheres of Bravo’s watery mega-franchise, where young and beautiful strivers labor long days and sleep in coffin-sized bedrooms for the greater glory of throwaway cash envelopes from the awful rich. In Below Deck’s fiendish version of reality, the guests are less characters than caricatures of ludicrous wealth. They complain about food, drink too much, take selfies from careful high-angle perspectives, get upset when their special treatment is not extra special, and sometimes realize midway through their luxury vacation that they actually hate their friends. Each charter lasts a couple of episodes, a minor storm front passing through the lives of the ship’s employees. The crew smiles for their brief masters — and make fun of them in the confessionals.
On Below Deck, the classy are trashy. We are on the workers’ side, even as we pick our favorites. The roles are well-delineated. There is a captain: Lee Rosbach on the original series, Sandy Yawn on Mediterranean (my personal fave), and Glenn Shephard on the windswept Sailing Yacht. There are the stewardesses (and occasional stewards) serving in the interior, led by a chief stew who inevitably becomes the season’s biggest personality. There are the deckhands, almost always pronounced “dickhands” by whatever blond South Africans or Australians are loosening anchors or unfolding waterslides, led by a jock-like bosun who may or may not have a drinking problem. And there is a chef who goes insane immediately (or eventually) because cooking 5-star food in a tiny kitchen (while throwing scraps together for the crew mess) is a high-tension 30-hour-a-day job.
The basic structure of Below Deck drama goes something like this: Everyone wakes up hungover from their night off, possibly regretting something they said at the bar, occasionally in bed with a crewmate they will see constantly at the floating office that is their home. A new charter starts. At best, the guests are chill. At normal, they are full-service customers boozing past social niceties. At weirdest, they are predatory, and the luxury yachting industry maintains an unspoken obligation to grin and bear it.
There are assorted little sub-plots to service — casual hookups, demonic guests, the chef’s latest meltdown — but the central drama of a charter comes down to a constant question of efficiency. Is dinner starting on time? Are clothes moving through the laundry room? Can the chief stew organize a private beach picnic with lavish on-the-fly decorations? Can the least experienced deckhand successfully throw the stern line during a textbook docking procedure?
Cameras seem to be everywhere, and the rapid editing cuts constantly between the cast. At certain points, Below Deck will pull back to a mega split screen: Deckhands preparing water toys, one stewardess clearing breakfast while another makes beds, the captain surveying weather patterns while the chef snores through a power nap.
You’re aware of the whole ship as a constant functioning organism — and aware that the guests are blissfully unaware of all the labor going on beneath their feet. The storytelling is almost entirely process oriented, which is presumably why workaholic auteur Steven Soderbergh loves the franchise. The notion of a “reality TV job” usually veers in two directions: aspirational lifestyle porn about real-estate charisma, or the thing MTV forces people to do between nightly parties. Here, the job is dominant. The crew is exhausted but can never look exhausted. There are short breaks that do not seem particularly relaxing: smartphones checked, cigarettes to smoke. After the charter ends, the yachties go out drinking and dancing, and then wake up hungover, and then a new charter starts, and then and then and then.
The latest season of Med ends Monday. This year's been a bit lacking in dynamic personalities, and not short of controversy. The future looked bright when the Wellington started its season with an all-female management staff. Sandy brought back longtime chief stew Hannah Ferrier — the cynical soul of the whole Below Deck universe — alongside a former deckhand, Malia White, now promoted to bosun. Chef Kiko Lorran was a perpetual ray of sunshine. A comically dispassionate 2nd stew, Lara Flumiani, offered some early drama and then walked off the boat in episode 3.
A cloud was forming, onscreen and off. Deckhand Pete Hunziker kept referring to Malia, his boss, as “sweetheart,” a bit of casual unreconstructed misogyny that became a dominant This Won’t Fly narrative in the early going. He was also a creepy flirt who, unlike the guests, had not paid money to be a creepy flirt. Not long after the season started, Bravo fired Pete for racist social media activity and edited around his presence for the remaining episodes. It was a window into the shifting ethics of reality television: sexism as a key plot point megaphoned via various preview commercials, racism as an unpardonable sin requiring wholesale eradication.
It also put a sharper spotlight on the weird, uncanny valley of life onboard a Below Deck vessel, a “luxury yacht” which is really a floating studio pretending to be a luxury yacht. Every now and then in a season of the franchise, you catch sight of the people who seem to be doing, frankly, the real work: First mates, engineers, not-ready-for-primetime employees who are not interesting/dramatic/hot enough to get mic’d. Never trust docusoaps for anything but entertaining lies, obviously, and there have been Below Deck castmates with long modeling resumes who think “starboard” is what astronauts surf. Don’t underrate the secret sorrow of life in the middle, though. The stews, deckhands, and chef live in submarine conditions, working so hard that they have to play even harder — but their close proximity to the paying customers forces them to plaster a happy look on their face even when they’re running on empty.
“Running on empty” turned out to be the unexpected Med macro-narrative. The Wellington offered the professional life expectancy of, like, a water baler on a boat made of swiss cheese. After Lara’s exit, Kiko impressed everyone with a 72-plate dinner. But you’re only as good as your next one, and a rough charter sent him in a mental tailspin that ended with an emotional firing. Malia’s visiting boyfriend Tom Checketts took over as chef, which seems like something that would only happen in reality TV — but then Tom revealed that he was apprenticed to Gordon Ramsey, a good reminder that reality was the thing we lived in before reality TV. Tom's sweaty high-tension mood swings proved a sharp contrast with Kiko's good-vibes-only approach; freakily, Tom's approach also seems to be way more successful.
Kiko’s departure was some kind of last straw for Hannah, a long-tortured five-year Med veteran on a show where the typical character barely lasts a full season. She wound up expelled for a Valium incident that better experts than me have fully Zapruder’d. Even a Hannah fanboy like me has to admit she seemed pretty checked out, but we’re often told that the whole yachting industry is a young person’s game. It doesn’t take long to get exhausted. Perhaps sensing a major lack of endearing personalities, Sandy/the producers brought back New Zealander Aesha Scott, a cheerful stew with zero filter who shined bright in season 4. Aesha wound up crying into her phone, using her confessionals to mostly explain how done she is with Below Decking.
The charter guests were the usual mix of goofs: A New York business bro who came off like a dog-loving Patrick Bateman, a mom squad perpetually two shots away from a total rift, baseball legend Johnny Damon returning to cement his reputation as the Jimmy Buffett of the Mediterranean, Roy Orbison’s son who hilariously seems to have at least one conversation per day about “Pretty Woman.” All winning at this slot machine called life, I guess, though besides Damon they all wound up the subject of jokes leveled by the crew or the editors. It seems weird to pay big money so a show with huge cable ratings can insult you. Maybe they’re vain enough think that they look awesome? Maybe they just don’t care?
The future of Below Deck looks as uncertain as the future of anything. A new season of the main series starts next month, but the very notion of leisurely cruising the high seas is tied up with 2020’s viral nightmares. (That’s not to mention any deeper conversation about representation; if the reality TV industry needs a reckoning, the luxury yachting industry needs a Ragnarok.) Yet the franchise has been a darkly funny balm in a bleak era. How lovely to spend quarantine months escaping to Sailing Yacht’s Greece, Med’s Spain, and Classic’s Caribbean! How much lovelier to see people in these lovely places descending into personal squabbles and personnel nightmares! (Your shelter-in-place bunker doesn’t seem so bad by comparison.)
Every now and then, a break between guest action leaves the yacht empty. The crew lives like they’re on a charter: Sliding, tanning, hot-tubbing, finally drinking one of their own cocktails. How would it feel, after long, cramped days hustling for the next dollar, to go above deck at last? To know that there are people figuratively and literally underneath you, never seeing the sun, working away so you don’t have to work at all? Forget Downton Abbey. Think Parasite.