Formats Unpacked: Below Deck
How to make a reality show for people who don't like reality shows?
This week’s unpacking feels like something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for some time. It’s a reality show that feels a little out of step with a majority of my TV viewing. It’s trashy, it’s fun and it’s highly addictive. I’ve never enjoyed a reality show quite like this. That made me curious enough to unpack it in hope of finding some answers as to why this hits the spot other reality shows don’t.
Here are my thoughts…
What’s it called?
Below Deck (TV show)
What’s the format?
It’s a reality show following the antics of uber-rich guests on a charter yacht, and the struggles of the ‘Yachties’ (the name for people who work on yachts) as they cater to the guests’ every need. It’s Downton Abbey on water. The guests charter the yachts for 2-3 days and come on board with a set of preferences/demands (vegan food, themed parties, watersports, private beach lunch). These all serve as possible points of tension between the guests and the crew over the next few days. In each episode the reality-ready-but-not-quite-luxury-yacht-standard crew attempt to deliver the perfect experience knowing that their tips (averaging $1500 each for a 2-3 day trip) are in jeopardy if anything goes wrong. Inevitably it does.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Every year, director Steven Soderbergh publishes a list of the movies, books, TV series, short films, and short stories he’s watched and read over the course of the year. I scan it annually for films and box sets I might have missed out on. In 2019 I made a note to watch a TV show he’d binged more than anything else on the list assuming it to be a high-quality drama that would plug the gap between seasons of Succession. It was Below Deck.
I don’t normally like reality shows. Whilst I do crave guilty pleasure TV as a mental palette cleanser after a heavy drama or movie, I struggle to find one sticky enough for my tastes. I’ve tried them all, including the shows my friends say “just give it a few episodes” but I find myself reaching for my phone pretty quickly. Below Deck got me and got me bad. Like Soderbergh, I was in from the start and couldn’t stop. In two months I devoured eight 20-episode seasons of Below Deck and five 20-episode seasons of Below Deck Mediterranean.
It wasn’t just me and Steven that found it so addictive. The New York Times warned viewers afraid of being hooked not to watch a single minute as the “franchise lures in viewers with the pitiless ease of sirens summoning sailors to hurl their ships against the sun-warmed Grecian coast.”
My problem with reality shows start when the production leans heavily into cliched and contrived storylines about the personal relationships of the cast. These storylines are used to do the heavy lifting when not a lot is happening elsewhere and I get bored very quickly when this happens. You get less of this on workplace reality shows because the story hangs on the rhythms of the working environment - whether that is a hotel, a restaurant, or an airline. The magic in Below Deck is in the frantic rhythms and challenges of running a charter. These provide enough jeopardy to create the requisite number of storylines and cliffhangers per episode without having to add too much filler.
Opportunities for guests to be unhappy are plentiful on any single day. To begin with there’s the task of delivering Michelin star food and service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then there’s the excursions and activities, evening entertainment, and drinks service throughout the day. Staff sleep in bunks, frequently sharing a room with someone they don’t necessarily get on with. They can work 16 hour days, get very little sleep, and be expected to function perfectly for guests who are splurging between $50,000 and $100,000 on a two-day charter. So creating a reality show around luxury yacht charters is genius because conflict and resolution are in such high supply.
Another note about the rhythm of the show is that individual charters (stories) are split over two episodes. That might not sound significant but there’s something nice about having familiar story beats play out in this way rather than every episode which other productions might have attempted. The big story to end episode 1 often revolves around everything going wrong for the guests at dinner or during an activity, then conflict occurs between the crew who now fear for their tip. The second episode of the charter is all about putting things right to make sure the tip isn’t impacted, the reveal of how much the tip is, followed by everyone going out on the town to spend their tips. The inevitable fallouts from these nights out inevitably spill into the next episode as the crew start a new charter hungover. This split feels like an interesting disruption to reality storytelling.
Ultimately Below Deck is a reality show about escaping reality for everyone involved. The guests are often entrepreneurs escaping the pressure of work for a few days and pretending they have Zuckerberg levels of wealth (they really don’t). The Yachties are escaping a mundane life in a 'proper job’ which they all acknowledge they’ll have to do one day. And viewers are using it to escape their brains for 44 minutes - or in my case 11,440 minutes at last count.
The one where guest ‘Seafoam Steve’ insisted the crew provided a foam party. It was the most pathetic foam party you will ever see but that didn’t stop him having fun. Another was the one where Cordon Bleu chef Mila Kolomeitseva served nachos that you’d send back if they were served at Taco Bell. Come to think of it any episode in which the chef leaves and they have to bring chef Ben back is a great episode.
Thanks for reading and let me know if there are any more interesting reality shows out there that need unpacking? We’re always looking for new formats to learn from. If you’d like to unpack a format yourself we’d love to hear from you too.
Until next week,