The world is divided into two types of people: those who watch reality television, and those who do not. Whichever camp you lie in, it’s likely you feel extremely passionate about it. Love Island? You’ve either watched every single episode, or the idea of it makes you feel nauseous. Keeping Up With The Kardashians? The family has either brilliantly sculpted their billion-dollar empire or they are talentless attention thieves who lower your IQ by just existing.
Hayu’s Below Deck seems to have achieved the impossible and has straddled both camps – somehow turning previously reality averse viewers into avid fans. My husband inhales every episode, yet has a deep hatred for every other reality show I watch. It’s also the cream of the crop for existing reality lovers and is one of the most viewed shows on Bravo, the US network where it’s aired. Grace Dent tweeted last week, “Was fairly smug about breaking my decades long reality TV addiction. Until I had a ‘quick look’ at Below Deck‘”
The series documents the mind-boggling lives of the crew and guests on a luxury 180-foot sailing yacht touring the Caribbean, Thailand and Tahiti and spreading chaos as it goes. Having first aired in the US in 2013, Below Deck is now in its eighth season and has spawned two wildly successful spin offs: Below Deck Mediterranean and Below Deck Sailing Yacht.
As per The New York Times‘ deep-dive, there are 19 cameras onboard – some fixed robocams, others hand-held by a production crew (making the tiny space on board even tinier). They turn 4,000 hours of footage into 20, 44-minute instalments each season.
US viewers have been able to watch Below Deck since its launch, but it was only last year that UK viewers had broad access to the show, when the first two seasons of the original series dropped on Netflix during the first lockdown. Suddenly words like “chief stew”, “beach picnic” and “preference sheet” were a part of our everyday lexicon and characters like Chef Ben (the gel-haired British chef Ben Robinson, one of the franchise’s most popular stars), Kate Chastain, the recently departed whip smart “chief stew” (chief steward, who oversees the day to day running of the boat’s interior), and Captain Lee began to feel like old friends.
A new wave of superyacht superfans was born. Jo, from London, says that living by herself during lockdown was what sparked her obsession. “What I really liked about it, even though it would be my idea of hell to live with that many people on top of you, was that it felt quite comforting. It’s therapeutic to see people doing exactly the opposite of our reality. They never have a single second where they are more than about six inches from someone else and it made me thank God I had my own space.”
The formulaic nature of each episode keeps you watching, too. Each season features around six or seven charters with different guests, each of whom get a couple of episodes dedicated to their trip. Starting with the “turnaround” (getting the ship ready for new guests), the Captain will go through the guests’ “preference sheet” where they list every item of food they like and dislike in intricate detail (normally, it contains something extremely specific and difficult to acquire, such as a brand of caviar they can only source from a tiny town in Russia) – with the chef and senior staff bosun.
Then follow the welcome drinks and boat tour, most likely a beach picnic (this always invites high drama: has someone forgotten the napkins? Why isn’t there a bottle of vodka in the chill box?? Will the goat’s cheese salad be ruined by the wind???) and evening entertainment such as a naff “white party” or boozy themed night.
The tip meeting is where the crew find out how much money they’ve been left by the departing guests (this is normally an eye-watering amount around the $20k mark, any less and the crew are in tears, and you are for some reason furious on their behalf). The crew’s night out is where the real messy drama happens, as half of them hook up and the other half fist fight. Then they do it all over again.
“There is something addictive about the formula,” says Below Deck fan Dan, from Twickenham. “We know that the crew won’t get on, that the guest requests will be ridiculous, and the impossibly complicated water slide will need to be put up every charter. The predictability is a comforting slice of escapism.”
The pandemic has, unsurprisingly, been a huge hurdle for a show filmed with a revolving door of guests in a tiny space, and the current season of Sailing Yacht, filmed in Croatia, featured a coronavirus scare leading to guests being ejected from the boat. “It could be the end of our season just like that. I think we were taken off guard by the fact that it happened,” said Captain Glenn Shephard at the time. “But all’s well that ends well.”
Now, fans are waiting to see if Below Deck season nine will get the green light to start filming this summer. “I never want them to stop making it,” says Kate from Bath. “It couldn’t be further from my life but I’m so invested. We can all dream of being part of a disastrous beach picnic ourselves one day.”
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