I’ve spent most of the Covid pandemic on a superyacht. My trip started in the Mediterranean but over the months I explored the Caribbean, Tahiti and Thailand. It was great – a total escape from the undulating terror and boredom stalking the globe. I didn’t abscond to the yacht through mega-wealth or privilege, but rather via a reality-TV streaming subscription. More specifically, I compulsively binged the Bravo tent poles Below Deck, Below Deck: Mediterranean and Below Deck: Sailing Yacht.
For anyone not indoctrinated into the Below Deck multiverse, the shows follow the lives, loves and work dramas of staff during the superyacht season. Like all great reality TV it’s pulpy, boring, chaotic, unhinged and occasionally moving. I’m obsessed.
At least, I was until a few weeks ago when I caught up to Below Deck season eight – AKA the Covid season.
The first mention of the pandemic appears in episode six when third stew (the lowest-ranking member of the interior staff) Ashling gets a call from her mum. Over a crackling speakerphone her mum asks “Did you hear about the coronavirus?” and recommends her daughter buys some masks. Ashling admits she has, but the chipper Australian says she is “hoping that it’s not as serious as people are making it out to be”. The scene takes place on 21 February 2020.
The exchange itself isn’t shocking. Watching in 2021 it’s a familiar, almost banal, conversation. We all had many like it as the extent of Covid began to crystallise before us. Still, I was surprised how my stomach churned when I heard the word “coronavirus” in my hallowed reality-TV sanctuary. Like many people, the pandemic has seen me develop an eerie callous to brutal news, but this resolve started to chip as I witnessed the Below Deck staff’s rising panic. They made other tense calls, worried for vulnerable loved ones, Googled border closures and faced the reality they might not be able to get home.
It was brutal watching them watch the crisis unfold, tumbling through loops of doubt, denial and distress, because it was familiar. Turns out, so was the season’s conclusion. As with most good things slated for 2020, it was cancelled.
Of everything the pandemic has taken from us, Below Deck deserves the least of your tears. But the value of soothing television shouldn’t be totally dismissed. Speaking to NBC in 2017, clinical psychologist Dr Renee Carr explained: “When binge watching your favourite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine and your body experiences a drug-like high.” Three years on, her explanation feels particularly true.
Last year the joy of cocooning in a show was compounded by the fact that pre-pandemic content also served as a hermetically sealed world. One where stories and characters were protected in the past, existing in a dreamstate we didn’t realise was precious until we were prised from it. Missing family, we devoured Schitt’s Creek; frustrated by remote work, we watched The Office; longing for travel, we binged Emily in Paris; and separated from friends, we caught up on, well, Friends.
While the appearance of Covid on Below Deck hit me the hardest, it wasn’t the first time the pandemic collided with escapist TV. In August The Masked Singer reached dizzying levels of irony when the show experienced an outbreak on its Melbourne set. Around the same time, the Australian season of The Bachelor was also disrupted. In what would become a common solution, the show was split into two halves with a clear delineation of BC and AC (before Covid and after Covid) realities. Teleconferencing replaced fantasy dates and the syrupy delusion was soured by the relatable reliance on awkward and lagging Zoom calls.
Season two of Drag Race UK shared a similar fate when participants were sent home for several months in the middle of the competition. When they returned, it was to a very different show. The queens came back with topped up cheek filler, face shields and a general look of panic. Narrative arcs shifted from who felt like an ugly duckling to who was already dealing with the trauma of lockdown and the financial evisceration of a stalled economy.
Even the unstoppable Kardashians were cowed. Across 20 seasons the family has built an empire of bending reality to their will: they regularly rewrite history as they live it, expertly crafting disasters into plot lines that neatly crest with choreographed personal triumphs. They attempted these old tricks with Covid but reached the limits of their legendary control. In the first episode of the latest season, the family decamps to a sprawling mansion in Miami to break up the monotony of being billionaires in a locked-down city. The season was filmed in LA between July 2020 and January 2021, wrapping during the peak of the pandemic in California.
Below Deck: Sailing Yacht season two returned to filming during the northern summer and is currently airing its first full Covid season. The original shock has worn off, but there is still a feeling of unease. The usually snotty-guest drama is undercut with a fresh level of grotesqueness when you understand these millionaires are attempting a luxury holiday in the middle of a global crisis.
Despite the name, the satisfaction of reality shows is in their creation of worlds that we can’t access or which simply don’t exist; where money is no object, fame is totally fulfilling and true love can be engineered in weeks. While we’re stuck in our real lives, with real events, news updates and consequences, these “characters” (and producers) are blessed with the ability to bend and reorder the world through an artful edit.
Year after year, season after season, cast after cast, we’re happily offered the same recycled tropes, dramas, mistakes and happy endings. So when the real world penetrates this shellac shell, it’s not engaging, it’s terrifying. It’s a reminder that something is deeply wrong, because you know the whole system was designed to keep it out.