Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pilot Review: Below Deck

Below Deck (Mondays at 10:00 on Bravo; Premieres July 1)

Rather than looking for the next lowest-common-denominator series like Princesses: Long Island or Most Eligible: Dallas, Bravo has instead opted for a kind of youthful Downton Abbey at sea, a reality television version of the 1980s film Overboard. That's the best way I can describe Below Deck, the newest addition to the Summer by Bravo lineup. It's an appropriate new show for summer, full of sun and poor choices, and it even manages to be passably entertaining and moderately fun. In other words, Below Deck is a great summer diversion that doesn't require the viewer to pay very close attention in order to enjoy it.

Below Deck follows the crew of the Honor, a high-class charter yacht. The extended cast consists of Sammy, a former industrial engineer who doesn't like taking orders; CJ, her male roommate with an attention whoring problem; Kat, a party girl steward who has a problem following rules; Adrienne, the no-nonsense chief steward; Dave, the new deckhand and token homosexual; Eddie, his straight roommate who has a degree in Adventure Education (?!); Aleks, the yacht's ambitious first mate; and Ben, the bad boy chef.

As is the standard of most of Bravo's new shows, everyone has their role to play. Each cast member fits into a particular mold, from occupation to appearance. We know Ben is a bad boy because he has wildly spiked hair and a British accent. We know Aleks is serious because he has an untrimmed, permanently knit brow. We know CJ is a ladies man because he has long, wavy hair and is frequently shirtless. In that respect, Below Deck is a typical, predictable, mindless reality show. It could air alongside any of Bravo's workplace docudramas (Flipping Out, The Rachel Zoe Project, Chef Roble & Co., etc.) and fit right in. Add to it the opulence and luxury of the network's "rich world" shows such as The Real Housewives franchise, and you have the formula for a show that is perfectly at home here.

However, Below Deck is far from great. There's no sense of inter-personal drama and growth which was on display in the recently-ended Newlyweds: The First Year, which this show replaces on Bravo's schedule. Below Deck really does just seem to be about a bunch of people working on a boat and how they act around each other/react to clients for five weeks. It's one of those shows that forces people into a situation and then records their responses, which isn't my favorite kind of reality show. Obviously it allows for tension as incompatible personalities are thrown together and expected to behave (or not), but it doesn't always make for organic-feeling television or honest entertainment. The primary conflict in the first episode involves the charter clients having a bit too much fun and bringing drugs onto the yacht, a situation that feels blown out of proportion on the show. Kat discovers the offending substance, which leads the captain (the only real-life crew member of the ship on which Below Deck is filmed, which is actually called the Cuor di Leone) to cut the charter short and return the yacht to port. Everyone on board acts as if this situation could have been the end of their lives, literally, or, at the very least, their careers. All because a client violated his contract. Talk about playing it up for the cameras.

The interactions of the crew are the main focus, however, not the conflicts which arise from the clients (which is a shame in and of itself, because the clients in the first episode were much more interesting and entertaining). It's obvious that Sammy and CJ are destined for a hookup, if not a relationship; Kat will obviously let her fun side get the better of her at some point; Aleks's ambition will obviously get in the way of doing his job; etc. There probably won't be many surprises on Below Deck, nor will it bring much of anything new to the table. As much as the advertisements are trying to make it about the upstairs-downstairs relationship between the clients and the crew, that's really not the focus here. Even if it were, I don't think the show would be much different. It's still a mindless, sunny, light, escapist series. In fact, the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the show's filming* is probably more interesting than anything on display here. Still, it's the kind of show I don't mind committing to over the summer. It's mildly pleasant and mostly inoffensive. You can watch Below Deck in the background and still feel like you're getting the full experience of it.

* The show was filmed over a six-week period nearly two years ago, in September and October of 2011. Captain Rosbach recently went public with the entire experience, shedding light on how little reality is involved in reality television. None of the crew featured on the show is an actual crew member of the featured yacht, which had its name changed for the series, and they're not even a crew from another ship; they were all cast separately and then assembled for filming (and only three of the eight had ever worked on a yacht before). He accused the crew of being "inept" and acting "like a crew [he] would have fired." Yikes. Read the entire article here

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