Below Deck, a new Bravo “docu-series” about the crew of a chartered yacht commits the cardinal sin for a show on that network: It’s boring. The rest of Bravo’s successful programming, and especially the Real Housewives franchise, thrive on perpetually escalating, insane interpersonal drama fueled by self-aware reality personalities who easily generate buzz. There’s a quality that makes it easy to get passionate about those shows, whether it’s the anthropological obsessiveness of a true fan or the vitriol of someone decrying Nene as the end of American civilization. Below Deck has none of those things. It doesn’t even have enough drama to sustain one episode, let alone the six that make up this season.
The premise of the show is Bravo-y enough—the crew spends its time “in paradise” on a boat (named Honor, because of course it is) that charters for upwards of $100,000 a week, getting into fights and dealing with obscenely wealthy clients. In fact, the focus on the crew should, theoretically, be a welcome change for the network—because the cast members are all functionally employees of the clients, stakes seem like they could be slightly higher (since they could genuinely be fired and lose their jobs) and the drama that much more entertaining. In practice, the general semi-competence of most of the cast just makes everything extremely flat, since no one is willing to take any risks. Beyond the aspirational element of Real Housewives and Bravo’s similar series, the insanely wealthy people who populate those shows have no real consequences to their actions, which gives them the freedom to be absolutely nuts. The cast here has no such luck.
Were Below Deck slightly closer to an actual documentary, the class undertones could actually approach interesting. In a landscape populated by princesses, the conflict between Adrienne and Samantha over the fact that Samantha’s family in fact owns a yacht is something genuinely new. The crew dinner at the end of the première comes close to emotion in part because it’s rare that the crew gets to eat anything like the food chef Ben makes for the clients. And the crew-client relations are occasionally informed by the vast gulf between them, particularly when deck hand Eddie has to babysit a drunken client asking him offensive questions. But Below Deck can’t effectively develop that much realer tension because the show is edited and scored exactly like every other Bravo show, which kills the docu- half of the “docu-series” conceit. Talking heads on reality shows are often dubious, but on Below Deck they’re not only utterly pointless (since everyone just says exactly what they’re doing), they contribute to the expectation of insane drama.
Sure, the producers try to create this sort of conflict. The première and the “This season on” teaser play up the adversarial relationship between Samantha and Adrienne, though it never rises above the basic archetypes of Samantha being carefree and using the word “chill” a lot and Adrienne doing less interesting variations on John Goodman’s “Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?” line from The Big Lebowski. The biggest argument they have over the course of the première is about Samantha taking a ten-minute nap. Seriously. The rest of the cast is bland to the point where I’m having trouble remembering most of their names after watching the première twice. Compare this series to Bravo’s biggest new show of the summer, Princesses: Long Island. That show had at least three outsized characters easy to love or hate (Chanel, Erica, and Ashlee, and probably also Amanda) by the end of its first episode. This show has maybe a quarter of one.
Instead of the crew, the clients, a group of Los Angeles photographers doing a photo shoot, are the most engaging people in the episode. When they board the yacht about halfway through the episode, Below Deck gets almost watchable—one of the photographers in particular could be a great Bravo character himself, spouting off lines like “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings.” The clients are responsible for the most discomforting thing in the episode (a “fashion show” where the photographers use their obvious power over the employees to pose Samantha and Adrienne) and the closest thing to real entertainment, when steward Kat finds what everyone assumes is cocaine (with rolled up dollar bills!) in the bathroom. After some brief internal debate, Kat tells the captain about the drugs and the yacht turns around to boot the clients. This story might be totally engineered, and I don’t know whether a real yacht crew would do something like this, but the imbalance between the crew awkwardly avoiding the clients who don’t know they’re getting booted is almost fun, and there are almost stakes in the crew’s jobs (which they’d lose if they were found out somehow, in the middle of the ocean).
A prematurely botched cruise is actually a pretty good metaphor for the whole show—we’re promised something exciting, sexy, and breezy, but instead just kind of end up back where we started, unsatisfied. That seems likely to continue through the rest of the season: Where the teaser for the second episode of Princesses: Long Island promised a batshit insane, drunken Shabbat dinner, the teaser for next week’s episode of Below Deck is about—wait for it—rain. With different clients every week (who may or may not be compelling) and minimal real opportunity for sustained drama between the crewmembers, the show doesn’t seem likely to ever set sail, so to speak (sorry). Like the cruise in the David Foster Wallace essay, Below Deck is a supposedly fun thing no one should watch again.