The cable TV network Bravo is best known as the reality powerhouse that brought us the infamous Real Housewives, a global TV franchise about rich (and pretend-rich) ladies fighting about who gets the biggest room on their cast vacations. (The Marvel Universe could never.) But in 2013, the network went slightly off brand, creating their version of a grittier view from below, with the unscripted series Below Deck.
While Below Deck does feature rich (and pretend-rich) passengers on luxury yachts — everyone from the Real Housewives of Atlanta and the so-called Queen of Versailles Jackie Siegel to baseballer Johnny Damon have been guests — the show focuses on the behind-the-scenes trials of the crew tasked with keeping them happy.
The crew’s work drama and boatmances have been consistently gripping enough to elevate the show, alongside its 2016 spinoff Below Deck Mediterranean, into the upper tier of cable TV ratings. Still, it’s easy to overlook Below Deck — I did for years — because the promotion for it has been oddly unenticing. Bravo’s ads often focus on the boat’s captain, “stud of the sea” Lee Rosbach, who also gets routinely interviewed on Bravo kingmaker Andy Cohen’s late-night talk show Watch What Happens Live. That’s probably because gruff-but-golden-hearted Captain Lee has a way with funny, exasperated one-liners, often involving phallic or sexual metaphors like “We screwed the pooch so many times we should have a litter of puppies running around” or “I would rather drag my dick through 10 miles of whiskey bottles than see these people again.”
But a few salty phrases could hardly fill an entire season. What keeps viewers coming back is the tribulations of the younger crew’s work and love entanglements. Unlike most reality shows that throw strangers together in close quarters — a common strategy since The Real World — the crew is both working and living together. The show is both relatable (we all deal with annoying bosses and clients, or crushes on coworkers) and delightfully heightened (most of us don’t experience those things while trapped on a boat for months at a time). But the thing that might set Below Deck apart from a crowded field the most is its emphasis on making art out of the least glamorous (and often feminine-coded) behind-the-scenes grunt work, including not just the physical but also the emotional labor demanded of service workers.
Part of the appeal of Below Deck is that it introduces viewers to the whole “yachtie” subculture and the real mechanics of what it takes to put together a seamless luxury charter season. The interior crew — or stews, led by the chief stew — takes care of keeping the cabins clean and waiting on the guests. The exterior crew — or deckhands, led by the bosun — takes care of the boat mechanics and the deck. Each episode, or sometimes two-episode arc, revolves around a particular group of guests — from annoyingly image-obsessed influencers to fortysomething women having a girls weekend — and ends with the crew getting together to have the captain assess their performance and unveil their big (or sometimes small) tip.
Because crew jobs on a yacht require actual skills for safety reasons (especially the outer deck crew), the casting choices on Below Deck are more limited than in most reality television. (Bravo makes the hiring decisions, but the captains reserve the right to fire crew members.) Still, as in all reality shows, the people performing these tasks are very hot; the cast has featured an especially high ratio of sexy guys with South African and Australian accents. And throwing hot people together inevitably results in some onboard romances, which are a big source of the drama, as the show chronicles what happens when heterosexuality takes to sea.
In Season 3, for instance, bosun Eddie Lucas (widely believed to be a good guy, thanks in part to his altar boy haircut) tried to hide his affair with the zany third stew Raquel “Rocky” Dakota from an on-land girlfriend. Rocky inaugurated the recurring trope of the loose-cannon stew that the chief stew has to try to train. (Chief stew Kate Chastain made her play a dreamy mermaid for the guests during one of her theme parties.) Eddie denied their relationship to the rest of the crew, which prompted Rocky at one point to literally jump ship.
Another scandalous example: Marine veteran Kelley Johnson, who came onboard in the second season. After seducing fellow deckhand Jennice Ontiveros, pretending he wanted a real relationship, he then unceremoniously dumped her. Johnson’s substantial johnson became a part of the show’s lore when his dick pics leaked after the season ended, and in the reunion episode he then claimed (with no evidence) that chief stew Kate or Jennice had been the ones who leaked them.
The most dramatic romantic storylines are the ones involving multiple crew members. Personally, I first got into the show with the second season of the spinoff, Below Deck Mediterranean, because it unveiled what has to be one of the most riveting love triangles in the history of pop culture — or at least since Bridget Jones’s Diary’s clash of masculinities between reserved Mark Darcy and playboy Daniel Cleaver.
The triangle hinges on Malia White, a bronzed Floridian deckhand trying to move up the ranks, and her two paler suitors. On the one side is bosun Wes Walton, a square-jawed South African (as mentioned, the show loves men with accents) who looks like a mean lacrosse jock but is actually a shyer Darcy type (and technically Malia’s boss). On the other side is Adam Glick, a more rascally, worldly chef who, when not at sea, lives in a camper van.
Throughout the season Adam is clearly falling in love with Malia, who likes Adam but is also falling for Wes. When Adam discovers that Malia had made out with Wes, he confronts her about her divided loyalties (“Malia, why would you lead me on?”). While the crew is out for an evening of partying while the boat is docked, Adam aggressively pantses Wes, and it all escalates into a big, ridiculous homosocial blowout that makes clear how much of men’s feelings of possessiveness over women are about their own egos. At some moments, it seemed like the narrative verged on slut-shaming Malia, but the plotline ultimately highlighted how tricky navigating these boatmances is for the women on the show, who have to deal with injured male egos in close quarters for the rest of the season.
Exposing cads is just one of the pleasures of Below Deck. It also puts a refreshing twist on the more familiar cultural script of having women perform sexiness as part of their service jobs. Instead, the chief stews aren’t afraid to emphasize the (male) crew’s hotness, especially when the guests are overtly horny (or gay). In one episode in Season 3, Kate enlists buff crew member Emile Kotze as entertainment for the guests when she has to host a Greek-themed party. “He's got a great body, chiseled features, and a brain made of stone," Kate says. "I would recommend taking your shirt off,” she instructs Emile, handing him a white sheet, “and using this to cover the parts you don't want exposed.” Then she adds, in trademark form, “Feel free to express yourself.”
The show isn’t always so lighthearted about this aspect of the job. In the current season of Below Deck: Mediterranean, Captain Sandy Yawn admonished a crew of overly excited women guests not to “molest” deckhand Jack Stirrup. But in general, Below Deck makes great drama out of the nuances of the kind of “interior” service labor often deemed too feminine (and boring) to anchor pop culture narratives: event planning, waitressing, laundering, and cooking. Which brings us to the show’s most prominent, recurring characters: the chief stews.
In many ways, the stars to root for on Below Deck and Below Deck: Mediterranean, as far as I’m concerned, are not the captains, or even, for the most part, the men. They’re the chief stews: Kate Chastain and Mediterranean’s Hannah Ferrier (my favorite). These women shine within the Bravo pantheon as no-nonsense anti-Housewives, who must stay resolutely calm while dealing with all the divas around them.
The crew, including the chefs, have constantly changed from season to season — except for the captains and chief stews. In fact, the flagship show didn’t quite find its footing until Season 2, when Kate replaced a more dour original chief stew, Adrienne Gang, who antagonized her resentful underlings. Kate does too, but she’s more artfully shady in her dealings with crew members and guests. Just one of her calm, thoughtful articulations of the word “huh” can mean a thousand things, from “I hate you” to “please leave the boat.”
During Kate’s debut season, guest Dean Slover, a demanding restaurateur, admonished the chief stew for not being cheerful enough. “You don’t seem happy, you’re not smiling, you’re coming off kind of bitchy,” he said. She remained completely calm and apologized, but when she cleaned his room, she shaped his blanket into a penis as a way of giving him the finger.
The episode turned into a heated debate among the crew over whether her “bad attitude” was going to be worth them not getting a good tip, and whether she should apologize to the guest. When Kate finally took one for the team and vaguely apologized, annoyed that the other crew members didn’t have her back, it was a poignant reminder of the way service jobs often demand a certain brand of likability, especially from women.
The recurring theme of guests’ random food demands also highlights the kind of emotional work that the chief stews perform. These requests (like no onions or no olives, or food allergies) drive the chefs (often depicted as tortured artists) nuts. Mediterranean’s Sydney-born Hannah (whose exasperated honays —“honey” in Australian — are deeply communicative) skillfully handles these tantrum-throwing male chefs, who tend to take out insecurities about their food on the chief stew.
The chief stews (like the captains) are often older than the rest of the crew, and they tend to maintain professionalism in a different way. They aren’t usually involved in the crew love triangles. (Kate’s Season 5 hookup with a long-haired Swedish sailor named Morton, whom she nicknamed “hot Jesus,” became iconic for its rarity.)
But one of the most affecting — and real — moments of the entire series is when Hannah falls for the head of the deck crew in Season 3, twentysomething Conrad Empson. The combination of her intense work ethic and her confusion about her feelings led to a panic attack on camera, and she was forced to confess her intense crush — and her anxiety about it — to Captain Sandy. The show’s nonjudgmental representation of that made it a relatable moment, and a rarity in a reality landscape where such experiences, especially for women, are often just pathologized for entertainment.
As Below Deck has become an established hit, and even spawned a growing franchise of spinoffs, Bravo producers seem to be leaning more and more into conventional reality stunts, like dramatic mid-season firings and crew defections, and a big “man overboard” moment last year.
The promotional run for the most recent season of the original show, which aired in fall 2018, really played up deck hand (and former stripper) Ashton Pienaar’s accident. A misstep caused a taut rope on the boat to wrap around his ankle, yanking him off the deck and into the water. Given the boat’s speed, he could have lost his leg. Bravo even vaguely broke the fourth wall and highlighted the fact that it was one of the show’s camera operators who jumped in to save him.
The incident unintentionally highlighted the precarious working conditions of deck hands — an issue that, despite the show being (at least theoretically) about the crew’s work, rarely makes it onscreen. It also gave Below Deck one of the highest-rated episodes in its history, and seemingly helped make a fan out of esteemed auteur (and camp connoisseur) Steven Soderbergh, who tweeted shortly after the episode: “If Stanley Milgram had an unlimited budget, no ethical guidelines, and took acid every day for a month, he would have created BELOW DECK. WHICH IS WHY I CAN’T STOP WATCHING IT.”
Bravo actually doesn’t seem to invest a lot of money in the show’s promotion or production, but maybe that’s part of its appeal. The show still hasn’t produced any table-flipping viral moments or breakout stars to send to Dancing With the Stars. It’s still the workplace microcosm of petty rivalries and fleeting love stories that makes it so relatable.
Every episode of Below Deck ends with the crew coming together, and we wait anxiously to hear the size of their tip. Especially in the age of millennial burnout — and especially for the channel’s younger-skewing audience — it’s easy to identify with performing work under constant pressure, hoping to reap rewards subject to the whims of the 1 percent. Is it any wonder we’re rooting for Bravo’s underdog show that could? ●