Skip to Content
reality TV reviews, news, and analysis since 2000

Below Deck is Bravo’s most subversive show

Below Deck is Bravo’s most subversive show
On Bravo's Below Deck season 11, Xandi Olivier sets a table (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

For 11 years, four spin-offs, and more than twenty-five combined seasons, Below Deck has served up standard Bravo fare: glossy, easily digestible episodes of real-life soap opera, filled with characters living enviable lives and behaving in both comic and loathsome ways.

That is not unlike The Real Housewives franchise, though there is a key difference: Aboard the luxury boats that house Below Deck’s cast, they are actually working.

I don’t mean working in a Yes, being a Real Housewives star really is a job! way, though there’s that, too. I mean hard, unforgiving work: cleaning toilets, single-handedly prepping and cooking elaborate meals, wiping down the boat’s exterior, doing endless amounts of laundry, and doing all of this again and again.

The deckhands and stewards, the chiefs and the chef, are laboring day after day, week after week. The editing captures most of the mundane work in brief moments, turning it into a transitional montage, little boxes that just fly by.

A person leans across a large table and arranges greenery
Barbie Pascual on Below Deck season 11 (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The toll of that work gets to them. How many third stews have Below Deck’s boats gone through, once the third stews learn how much their jobs suck?

It is not unlike being a scullery maid in Manor House, the wonderful real-life Downton Abbey that PBS produced in the early 2000s. Everyday people lived in a house together, taking on roles from the early 1900s. They became upstairs and downstairs, wealthy and poor. The rich demanded, the poor catered to them.

Below Deck’s cast is also downstairs, where they face similar struggles while working long days to keep the boat running and tending to the needs of frequently demanding, occasionally obnoxious rich people.

The guests pay a discounted price, but act as though they are owed the world.

For one of dozens of examples, there was Timothy Sykes, whose website identifies him as a “millionaire penny stock trader.” He showed up to a yacht in a black shirt with his name on it, and said, “Look, there’s our crew to serve us. They are our slaves for the next three days.”

This is grotesque entitlement, though Below Deck softens it. The bouncy music that underscores most scenes keeps things light, as do the crew members’ colorful reactions.

“I would rather drag my dick through 10 miles of broken whiskey bottles than have these assholes on my boat again,” Captain Lee said about other obnoxious passengers. Bring on more assholes who will prompt another vivid metaphor!

When one group of passengers demanded cigars and proceeded to smoke them backwards, the crew of that boat privately roasted them, finding pleasure in people who may have money, but haven’t a clue about how to use it.

The injection of humor into contemptible behavior is the common on prestige scripted television shows, such as The White Lotus and Succession, which satirize extreme wealth. The writing in those shows nods to the underclass but centers the rich, finding story arcs and comedy in their petty problems. Those shows aren’t impossible to watch, however, because they find threads of humanity even in people who treat other people like garbage.

Below Deck is more fearless than these shows, and more daring than its Bravo brethren: Here, the wealthy are mere props, as its well-rounded characters, its stars, are the working class.

A person behind a bar sticks their hand into a metal cocktail shaker
Chief stew Fraser Olender returns for Below Deck season 11 (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Rich passengers may charter the yacht, get blind drunk, and demand the impossible, and their antics get camera time. Yet they are not the focus.

Below Deck is crafty, managing to shovel that drama onto the screen while keeping the focus on how their behavior affects the crew, who are just trying to do their jobs.

This is not a luxurious life, the show reminds us, such as through repeated glimpses into the cramped crew quarters, where two people share a narrow closet of a room with no privacy.

Despite the ever-changing drama from the ever-changing passengers, there’s a monotony to the Below Deck crew’s days. Their hours of work pass in seconds for our benefit, but we still see the toll of exhaustion, with frequent shots of the crew collapsed in their beds. This reality TV show cast is not doing their work for the benefit of cameras.

A person wipes a wood railing on a boat; other boats are in the background
Below Deck season 11 deckhand Kyle Stillie (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Below Deck is technically not a formatted reality show, like Chopped or Survivor, but its episodes tend to follow the same beats: guests leave, change clothes, tip meeting, flip the boat, go out and get drunk, new guests, champagne, tour of the boat, cocktails, lunch, water toys, delayed meals, partying all night, breakfast.

This structure echoes the monotony of service industry work, the endlessness of the same tasks. The preference sheets change, but the processes do not. Problems arise, people are fired, and yet nothing changes. The work is the work. The rich always demand more.

I’m not conflating these yachties with the working poor, or with, say, servers at restaurants or housekeepers at hotels. Below Deck’s cast are not only on TV, they’re receiving thousands of dollars in tips every few days.

Nor are their lives always miserable. Not all the guests are monsters; some are downright pleasant, kind, engaging with the crew as people worthy of connecting with. Captains/the producers give the cast time to eat and play. That is not immaterial, but the hard work doesn’t abate.

A person in a black shirt rests their arm on a railing and looks out at the calm ocean
Captain Sandy Yawn on Below Deck Mediterranean (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

For more than a decade, Below Deck has documented—concealed inside Bravo’s airy packaging—aspects of this particular service industry, but also of the nature of work itself.

We’ve seen differences in leadership from different captains. The laissez-faire, no-nonsense, “don’t embarrass the boat” and “don’t embarrass yourselves” Captain Lee had to take medical leave in season 10, and was replaced by the hands-on, personal growth-focused Captain Sandy, who isn’t so much a micromanager as a vigilant hawk. Both approaches have their charms and frustrations for their underlings.

During each season, conflicts must be sorted; the chef and the chief stew must negotiate every meal; the deck crew and stews must get used to hierarchy. Those who fail at their jobs are fired.

There are constant smaller stumbles, such as when higher-ranked crew struggle with how to manage people. Lauren tells her boss, “I’m being ostracized.” Her boss, Hannah, says, “Just try not to let it affect you mentally.” Ah, problem solved!

Eight people in white short-sleeve, button-up shirts and black pants or skirts, standing in a line
Below Deck Med’s crew in their whites awaiting guests: Captain Sandy Yawn, Jack Luby, Tumi Mhlongo, Luka Brunton, Kyle Viljoen, Jessika Asai, Lily Davison, and Max Holz (Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The close quarters mean everyone is hooking up with everyone, and the lack of rules or discernment means managers are flirting or sleeping with their subordinates, and the fallout is right there on screen for us.

So is the endless misogyny from the men, both in their personal lives and work. In the industry, men are typically deckhands, women stews. Female deckhands often find themselves excluded or chided, even by those men they outrank. These men just cannot imagine a woman doing their work, that’s how special they think they are.

It’s hard to watch. Here is a Bravo show, highlighting system sexism in work and relationships, again and again, making sure its audience notices. The crew may be centered, but they are not let off the hook.

Over Below Deck’s life, there has been some change. It’s always had queer representation—season one had a gay deckhand who also did gay porn—while breakout star and former chief stew Kate Chastain dates men and women, and captain Sandy Yawn is a queer woman. But there’s also been a shift over time, as more women work on deck and more men in the cabins.

These crew members are also, of course, stars. This is a whole separate layer, one that illuminates the work of being a reality TV cast member.

The nature of the work on Below Deck means they must have actual experience (Kate actually worked on yachts before the show called). But they have also been cast—these are mostly young, mostly white people, all with hot, Instagram-ready bodies—who must deliver what audiences demand in order to be invited back next season.

Below Deck has one other way it centers and celebrates those who do the work, and that is the crew who are filming the boat’s crew.

Instead of editing around glimpses of the TV production, episodes break the fourth wall frequently enough to remind us that there are more working-class people on the boat: the non-union, freelance members of the production who are usually invisible to us but make our entertainment possible.

And they, too, are framed as both humans and heroic, whether that’s when we see a camera operator get hit in the groin by an errant tennis ball or watch as Below Deck Down Under TV show crew members intervened to stop non-consensual contact.

The Below Deck franchise trawls the waters for drama, and finds enough to fill up bingeable episodes, never mind tabloids in need of stories and Andy Cohen’s cards.

But it always stays anchored in the realities of late-stage capitalism, how we can work day after day, year after year, and never get close to the obscene wealth of those who insist their needs come first.

Below Deck is itself feeding a giant corporation. But that doesn’t stop it from making sure we know who the real monsters are.

All reality blurred content is independently selected, including links to products or services. However, if you buy something after clicking an affiliate link, we may earn a commission, which helps support reality blurred. Learn more.

About the writer

Discussion: your turn

The writing here is the start of a conversation, and reality blurred values your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching, the pop culture we’re consuming, and the stories about it.

To share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space, there are rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to those rules.

Happy discussing!