I usually hate reality television. It feels fake, corny, scripted, pointless, and oftentimes obnoxious. So when my new roommate turned on Bravo over dinner one night as opposed to Tucker Carlson’s prime time program, which had been my usual staple, I admittedly dreaded what I was about to watch. I ended up glued to the couch for the next five hours.
What I found on-screen felt unique from Bravo’s routine reality TV. While the cringey “Housewives” programs merely offer a curated glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous, the channel’s “Below Deck” put a focus on the servers and not the served with a cast far more familiar to the global backpacker scene than the plastic women coated in luxury. Reality television that focused on the so-called nobody’s was a refreshing concept, and it clearly picked up traction.
“Below Deck” was nominated for its first two Emmys this year, including one for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program and another for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program. According to Vanity Fair in August, the show eclipsed “Real Housewives” as the most-watched linear series last season, and it’s already created two spinoffs, “Below Deck Sailing Yacht” and “Below Deck Mediterranean,” with two more on the horizon.
When I told a colleague that I planned to write this, she encouraged me to give “Vanderpump Rules” a watch. I did. While I couldn’t stop watching “Below Deck,” I couldn’t get through more than three episodes of the Vanderpump show, which felt as if it had more in common with the “Real Housewives” than the boat-based reality series. After all, “Vanderpump Rules” was launched as a spinoff of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
The cast on “Vanderpump Rules” is entirely focused on becoming rich and famous by whatever means — acting, modeling, singing — regardless of their talent. Though the show documents a restaurant staff operating an upscale West Hollywood establishment, it rarely, in the episodes I forced myself to watch, put attention on the servers actually doing their jobs. Instead, it seemed to center entirely around the dramatic staff whose sole purpose in life is reaching for the stars in an effort to become one. It lacked the authenticity of the crews on “Below Deck,” who had far more pragmatic career goals.
“Below Deck” gives viewers a look into the life of one-percenter luxury through the lens of those working around the clock behind the scenes. It draws a fine balance between giving attention to the guests on board and the staff breaking their backs to meet their needs, featuring Bravo-brand drama in the process. What makes the deck crew’s drama distinct, however, is it often involves their actual work on the boat, which is relatable content to anyone who’s worked in the service industry. There are picky guests, diva chefs, stern bosses, impatient servers, complicated relationships, and at the end of the day, a job to get done in search of the perfect tip.
An aura of authenticity absent from the staff on “Vanderpump Rules” is maintained among the cast of “Below Deck,” as young 20- and 30-year-old wonderers hold on to the intrinsic values of personal development and romantic soul searching. They’re the exact type I would come across backpacking southeast Asia in college. Watching the cast on “Vanderpump Rules” felt as if I were watching a cliché drama of my high school classmates who never matured beyond 10th-grade MTV.
Longtime former Queen Chief Stewardess Kate Chastain (and personal favorite) appeared to sum up many of the casts’ desires toward the end of season two when the crew learned while out to dinner that a pair of staff met on a boat and worked in yachting for 15 years.
“I’m so amused to find out that our server and the chef are retired yachties,” Chastain said. “Every yachtie kind of has this life they’re working towards. It’s nice to see it in a tangible, edible version.”
The crew of “Vanderpump Rules” seem to desire a very different lifestyle.