Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Life is busy, work is hard, and times are tough, so I’ve been very, very intentional in my television viewing lately — cruising for escapist smooth sailing. This includes gentle sitcom standbys like Frasier (the one with Derek Jacobi 😂), but sometimes, you (I) want to be bitchy too. As we all know, escapism and makin’ fun of dummies can best be found in one place: Bravo TV. Andy Cohen’s nightmare playground is chock-full of delightful human specimens, from Housewives to people who work for Housewives, but my household has fully spent the past couple weeks Below Deck.
OK, so, apparently there’s such a thing as a “mega-yacht,” and mega-yachts, like all yachts, need to be staffed. Below Deck follows the captain and crew of a series of hella-fancy party boats as they ferry the rich and not-so-famous from dinky little beach bar to dinky little beach bar across the bright blue seas. To be clear: The engine crew — aka those who keep the boat from exploding (Tennessee is landlocked, bear with my definitions) — don’t really make appearances. When I say "staffed," I mean the stewards and deckhands who are expected to make tropical mega-yacht excursions the most exciting time of their guests’ lives, while also ensuring the guests continue to live life; there seems to be quite a bit of making sure over-served millionaires don’t fall overboard. (Only funny when it happens to Goldie Hawn.)
We’re dealing with multiple subcultures in one show on Below Deck and its spinoffs: professionals in the hospitality industry who cater to the very wealthy; what I’m going to refer to as “Boat People,” who were raised by the ocean and have varying degrees of nautical competency on deck; American counts and countesses (those who own successful small businesses in B-list cities no one cares about, tech turds, I’m fairly sure a handful of pornographers); and attention-seeking functional alcoholics — sometimes they’re the crew and sometimes they’re the guests.
Obviously the guests change with every episode (though there are some repeat customers). But what’s really fun is, most of the crew changes with every season too. Sometimes people get fired within a season and are replaced: I think this is a large part of the reason why Below Deck sometimes reminds me of early The Real World at its best. I don’t want to say there’s an “innocence” to the cast members — there’s definitely not — but the stakes are very low for most of our stewards and deckhands: They want to hook up with hot roommates, get a little sand and sun, and try to work hungover.
Friends, if you are in the mood for idiotic hardbody 20-somethings who are extremely confused by the concept of work after agreeing to be on a reality show about working — have I got great news for you. Even better: Boats are extremely dangerous! So the tension between the Boat People (who grew up knowing about arms getting ripped off and whatnot) and the attention-seekers with poor impulse control who have been allowed (because Comcast said it was OK) to be in charge of potential life-or-death situations is palpable.
One of my favorite reality TV cast members of the past few years is Kate Chastain, chief stew for most of our journey. She is, at heart, a Jeeves type: a professional servant with incredibly high standards. She knows she’s good at what she does; most of the underlings can barely keep up. I’d pity them if they didn’t have such a bad attitude. Tips are on the line. Every episode culminates in the crew counting out a fat stack, sometimes $20,000-plus to split amongst 10 people.
The sad fact is, most people don’t deserve to be waited on by the likes of a woman like Kate — even me, but especially most of these yacht-goers. And here’s the fucked-up thing: Yeah, they’re rich. They can afford to rent a $50K mega-yacht for a week, fly all their friends out to the Caribbean, the good stuff. But still, these people are just renting mega-yachts. They don’t own them. They’re not having them custom-built. These guests don’t own private islands; they own successful restaurants in Reno and Lake Tahoe. They’re like, really good professional poker players.
The sheer absurd pointlessness of it all is grimly funny; guests love the giant inflatable slide, which weighs hundreds of pounds and takes multiple people hours to assemble and disassemble, and is used for a grand total of 20 minutes. Lessons about responsibility are learned and forgotten in every episode. After hours, and if Captain Lee allows them off the boat, the crew immediately spends their tips, 20s trickling down to the same servers at the same dinky little beach bar the guests were enjoying the same Jack-and-Coke at, 12 hours earlier.