The Bravoverse has given us so much. It has remade the “housewife” in its image, educated the public about the prevalence of white-collar crime, and showcased heights of heterosexual depravity previously only theorized. But its greatest contribution to culture? Below Deck, by a mile.
Below Deck is, at its core, a workplace show — and the most accurate reflection of the contemporary workplace currently on air. The series and its seaworthy spawn (e.g., Below Deck: Mediterranean, Below Deck: Down Under, Below Deck: Sailing Yacht) have all the makings of ingenious reality TV endurance competition. Cameras follow the staff of a luxury yacht over the course of a several-weeks-long charter season as they labor together for 12-, 16-, or even 20-hour days to give demanding guests a five-star experience. They frequently forgo breaks. When they do sleep, it’s together, in tiny cabins. When they eat, it’s together, in the crew mess. They never leave their place of work, except on nights off — and even those are often spent together, eating, drinking, and drinking more.
Just about everyone knows what it’s like to b*tch about Angela in accounting or to resentfully cover for that one coworker who’s not pulling their weight during morning rush. But almost all of us get a break. We clock out. We leave the office.
On Below Deck, there is no escape. Crew members can’t even take a walk to blow off steam. They are surrounded by the open sea and the terrors that dwell within it. (When the captain scolds a deckhand for putting lives in danger by failing to follow protocol, she’s usually not exaggerating.) They’re also being filmed 24/7, even when asleep — or not so asleep — in their bunk beds.
On Below Deck, there is no escape. Crew members can’t even take a walk to blow off steam.
In these tight quarters, small things pile up. When a deckhand fails to tie a proper knot, or someone gets snippy about the proper way to make a margarita, you lose it. You make like chef Rocky Dakota and swan dive off the boat in protest. You pull a Hannah Ferrier: Secretly take prescription(?) Valium on the job, and break maritime law in the process. (Unfortunately for Hannah, it turns out that “maritime law” isn’t just a running Arrested Development gag.)
There’s no need to up the stakes. All you have to do is take a bunch of random people — people, with all of their neuroses and issues and weird little biases — distribute them across a hierarchy, and ask them to serve another group of random people.
Below Deck is basically the Stanford prison experiment, but for work.
We all know that work is broken, in part because there’s a whole cottage industry promising to fix it via the usual commodified means: podcasts and airport books.
But people are even taking actual, non-podcast-based action, like refusing to return to the office or supporting unions in numbers that haven’t been seen for decades. And then there’s a lot of TV about it, and networks only make TV if there’s an audience for it.
The past few years have given us Industry, Superstore, Party Down, Corporate, The Bear, The Morning Show, Severance, and Abbott Elementary, among others. Generally, these shows fall into three categories: the charming sitcom (Abbott Elementary, or its structural predecessor, The Office), labor dystopia (Severance), and industry critique (The Morning Show).
But none of these categories are suited to actually capture the crazy-making reality of working with other people. The charming sitcom absolves day-to-day indignities by romanticizing comradeship; the labor dystopia caricatures the structure of the office, taking the spotlight off infuriating interpersonal dynamics; and the industry critique reserves its sharpest barbs for the industry in question.
Enter Below Deck, which will have you yelling about the same things you complain about from 9 to 5, from a colleague’s poor communication skills (“you didn’t tell him they wanted lobster in the starter, too!”) to a manager’s counterproductive approach to motivating underlings (“she responds best to praise!”).
And then there’s the reality of service work in particular. You’ll watch slack-jawed as guests berate the staff for no good reason. Sure, they’ll get sizable cash tips at the end, but how much money is worth enduring that maritime hell?
I’d like to see podcasts and airport books try to fix the problems of Below Deck. The most work-fluencers usually offer is advice at the individual level — you know, strategies for managing up and defusing full-blown feuds into simmering rivalries. You’d need to capsize the whole luxury-yacht-rental model to fix these faults, and also maybe re-engineer the human race with an immunity to pettiness.
Ultimately, what the show reveals is not just that yachties work particularly long hours, but how insane it is that anyone manages to work together on the job at all.
Ultimately, what the show reveals is not just that yachties work particularly long hours, but how wild it is that anyone manages to work together on the job at all. Every day, millions of people mismanage their employees, and millions more prove themselves to be unmanageable. The global economy is one big group project, and no matter how much good work you do on your own, your fate is determined by how everyone else decides to act.
I’ll thank the world economy for one thing, though: developing the entertainment industry that makes my Mondays more bearable with a dose of Below Deck… and reminding me that while the Angela-in-accounting-type problem is unavoidable, my job is on the whole a very, very good one.