This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by editor Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Typically, we think of reality TV as a distraction.
We wind down at night with a glass (or seven) of wine, watch grown women argue over whether a cheese board is tacky, laugh at how silly it all is, and cringe because we know that we’ve probably had an argument before about something as inconsequential as a cheese board. We gawk at grown adults who seem to think it’s a good idea to get engaged to a stranger after just a few weeks of blindly dating them in a pod—fiercely judging them on the first pour, wishing we were them by the time the bottle empties. (We love love!)
It can be jarring, then, when the “reality” of reality TV confronts its audience. It’s not that reality TV, even something like the Real Housewives or Love Is Blind, ignores the dark truths of the world. Sure, when these shows reflect our lives, we like to think it’s through a funhouse mirror. But the appeal of these series is getting to know the people in them, and that means following them as they deal with heartbreak, death, legal issues, depression, bigotry, and so many other, well, realities. Even a means of escapism, like these shows, can force us to contemplate certain truths of society—and our own moral compasses.
While that may be a tradition of the genre and one of its most redeeming values, it was still a shock to watch the two episodes of Below Deck: Down Under that were released this week on Bravo.
The episodes were disturbing and triggering, yet inspiring and refreshing. The way the incidents in the episodes are handled by the crew, on camera and off, should change how we view reality TV and what we expect from it going forward. For a genre that made its name on exploitation, these episodes could be a turning point in terms of what is now demanded: accountability.
(Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault.)
Below Deck: Down Under is a spinoff of the Below Deck franchise that takes place in Australian waters, following a team of deck crew and stewards as they serve demanding guests vacationing on a luxury yacht—and then as they unwind together when a charter is over.
In a jaw-dropping sequence at the end of the first of this week’s new episodes, “All Wrong,” the crew comes back from a night of countless tequila shots. Margot Sisson, one of the stews, is escorted to bed by chief stew Aesha Scott, who is concerned over how drunk Margot is and how keen bosun Luke Jones seems to be about hooking up with her.
Aesha stays with Margot until she falls asleep, and then leaves her room. Soon after, the power in the boat goes out, and Luke is seen in the dark sneaking into Margot’s room while the rest of the crew is occupied dealing with the outage. Margot is in a deep sleep when Luke takes off the towel he was wearing and climbs into her bed naked.
Immediately, a producer darts from his position behind the camera and starts trying to get Luke out of the room, as Luke tries to rouse Margot into saying everything is OK. The producer won’t relent, despite Luke’s attempts to close the door in his face. Aesha then comes running in to check on Margot, as Luke storms off and locks himself in his room. After making sure Margot is safe, Aesha immediately goes to Captain Jason Chambers’ bunk and tearfully fills him in on what happened; Aesha is a survivor of a non-consensual sexual assault and is distraught that a similar incident nearly occurred at her place of work.
Captain Jason springs to action, removing Luke from the ship immediately and firing him the next morning. He gives a speech to the remaining crew about the expectation for boundaries and safety, emphasizing the need to rally around Margot in the wake of what happened. When stew Laura Bileskalne, who we had watched over previous episodes sexually harassing deckhand Adam Kodra, moans to Margot that Luke’s firing was unfair and makes her feel guilty about it, Captain Jason fires Laura as well.
It’s an astonishing sequence of events. It’s horrifying, upsetting, and deplorable, in terms of the behavior witnessed. But it’s staggering how it was handled.
The swiftness and the urgency with which Aesha and Captain Jason acted was remarkable; they showed a sense of nobility and understanding of the gravity of the situation—for the crew but also perhaps even for the viewers who would be watching at home—that we don’t instinctively associate with reality TV stars. There’s a much darker version of events that could have happened, had cameras just been allowed to continue rolling, sans any intervention. That’s awful to think about, but not hard to imagine happening, according to how we have been conditioned to understand how reality TV works.
Whenever something veers more unpleasant than frivolous on a reality series, we as viewers get that icky feeling: How complicit are we in this?
Was it juicy to watch Real Housewives like Erika Jayne and Jen Shah navigate their legal woes? Of course. But what’s the true entertainment value of that when there are real-life victims involved? We giggle uncontrollably as reality cast members devolve into foolishness while guzzling alcohol. But is a drunk Luann de Lesseps falling into a rosebush as funny in hindsight when she’s later arrested and embarks on a complicated, still-ongoing sobriety journey?
There’s a classic hypocrisy in the reality TV fanbase where we bemoan certain cast members for being “monsters,” while rooting on their monstrous qualities because it makes for good TV. Across seasons, we constantly see stars calibrating their behavior—their level of monstrosity—based on what’s working or not working for the audience. A Below Deck crew knows that the outlandish partying is a major appeal to fans; but what is the repercussion of that?
These episodes of Below Deck: Down Under, and the outpouring of reaction from viewers who were so impressed with how they were handled, show what was no longer working: the pretense that these stars don’t deserve dignity or protection, just because the show is something they signed up for. Reality TV isn’t just entertainment, neither for the cast nor the audience. It is reality, and when it’s finally treated as such, as was the case with how the incidents in these episodes were handled, it proves a new value to the genre. This is a reality-TV turning point.