Row, row, row on boats, bickering on screen

TELEVISION 

All reality TV is at least partially fake. But there' s a continuum of fakeness, and Below Deck, lies at the far, far end of that scale. Even by the dubious standards of its genre, this is a series that stands out as being particularly staged and inauthentic.

Below Deck follows the crew of the Honor, a $16-million mega-yacht operating off the island of St Martin. In every episode the yacht is chartered out to a different group of guests, creating a new set of difficulties for the crew. 

It' s a reality series in the same vein as Laguna Beach or The Real World: there is no voting and no prize at the end of the series – just a group of people living together in close proximity, under the watchful eye of the camera.

It' s easy to see the appeal of the show. Like Top Billing, it offers its viewers the thrill of being able to experience, vicariously, the lives of the super-rich. Like Downton Abbey, there' s the upstairs-downstairs drama that stems from the interaction between patrons and the people who serve them. And, like Big Brother, it features the soap opera-style antics that inevitably ensue when a small group of people is confined to a small space for too long.

The crew members fight, hook up, get wasted and gossip about each other. Small personal disputes are blown up to epic proportions by the filmmakers.

One of the stewards (the smart but vain Sam) is constantly at war with her superior (the haughty but insecure Adrienne). She also has to fend off the sexual advances of CJ, her creepy roommate who claims to be in an "open relationship" with his off-screen girlfriend, and is chided for constantly taking off his shirt. 

Another steward, Kat, has a small drinking problem: in one episode she drinks so much that she ends up running around the boat naked, and has to be awkwardly hoisted into her bunk bed by the rest of the crew. 

Of course, the idea that all of this represents an authentic picture of life on a mega-yacht is risible. In reality, the filmmakers simply chartered the yacht for five weeks, gave the regular crew a holiday, and brought on a fresh cast of crew members who were primarily chosen for their looks rather than their experience. Only three members of the cast had worked on a yacht prior to the show.

Two members of the yacht' s permanent crew stuck around for the filming of series. One of them is the ship' s captain, Lee Rosbach, who is arguably the real star of the show. He puts on a brave face throughout the filming, even though he clearly feels exasperated by the trashiness and stupidity of the whole exercise.

On some level, Below Deck feels like a documentary about the frustrations of an old-school mariner who finds his boat unexpectedly taken over by TV producers.

I will admit: all of this makes for a viewing experience that is engrossing, if also guilt-inducing. Moreover, the things that make it inauthentic are, quite often, the same things that make it compelling. If the Below Deck didn' t have a crew of bumbling amateurs, producing a steady stream of mishaps and minor disasters, it wouldn' t be nearly as much fun to watch. Would anyone watch a reality show about a yacht crew that was efficient, competent and well behaved Probably not.


Below Deck is shown on Tuesdays at 9.30pm on M-Net Series Reality

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Laurence Caromba
Laurence Caromba works from Pretoria, South Africa. I teach International Studies at Monash SA. I tweet about culture, politics, technology, foreign affairs & anything else that interests me. Views my own. Laurence Caromba has over 165 followers on Twitter.

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