The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s to the class-conflicted, workplace-inappropriate ‘Below Deck’ — TV’s ideal mental vacation

(Alexander Wells for The Washington Post)

Who even has the energy left to moan about the ruinous effects of reality television? That war is lost.

Save perhaps for the moralistic monkey bars of “American Ninja Warrior,” you sense that all reality is rigged, one way or another. And yet here we are, living it, voting for it, buying it, selling it, baking away in it. From a position of total surrender, all I can say is: You watch your reality TV and I’ll watch mine, and let’s stop pretending one is any better than the other.

Which brings me to Bravo’s irresistibly entertaining “Below Deck” — and its spinoff, “Below Deck Mediterranean,” the fourth season of which is currently airing Monday nights. Both shows closely follow a crew of pretty (and sometimes pretty difficult) people hired to work as stewards, deck hands and chefs on a 150-foot chartered mega-yacht. Perhaps you see just another reality show. I see a form of blissfully bizarre escape, encoded with lessons about work, about life. “Gilligan’s Island” without the nuisance of a shipwreck. “The Love Boat” with temper tantrums. If alive today, Herman Melville would pen long recaps of each episode.

Since “Below Deck” premiered in the summer of 2013, ratings have steadily climbed, averaging around 2-1/2 million viewers per episode, partly because the show provides a number of psychological pleasures. It’s a glimpse into a workplace that is presumably far more grueling than our own, where shifts can last 18 hours and employees are “busting their humps,” as Noah Samton, Bravo’s senior vice president of current production, puts it.

“Below Deck”and “Below Deck Mediterranean,” center on a season’s worth of three-day excursions, nine or so separate trips, purchased by charter guests who receive a significant discount (still costing a group anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000, according to yachting industry estimates) in exchange for turning their vacation into a busy TV production.

The original show was based out of Caribbean ports, until a hurricane shifted the productions to Tahiti; “Below Deck Mediterranean” has traveled to the Greek Islands, Croatia and presently cruises the French Riviera. The charter guests are also expected to provide a 10-15 percent cash tip to the crew, the precise amount of which ends up becoming a plot point near the end of each episode: Did the crew perform to the guest’s expectations? Is the guest a tightwad?

“‘Below Deck’ is the perfect format,” Samton says. “The way that everything works . . . these hard-working, single, attractive people, mixed with rich guests, living together, working together — it’s a recipe for fascinating human behavior.”

In another time, both the drudgery of work and the pride in gainful employment provided considerable early fodder for reality TV. The original “Real World” kids all held down jobs, on the precept that they had to do more than sit around. They were bike couriers, interning doctors, community organizers, comic-book illustrators. Now only “Project Runway” comes anywhere near the level of exertion and stress seen in “Below Deck,” and even that’s a staged competition rather than a clock-punching job. Many of Bravo’s current shows — in the “Real Housewives” or “Southern Charm” mode — are about people who sit around and wait to attend their next party, meal or leisure event.

“Below Deck” exists in a world free of those ceaseless reminders from the Human Resource department about how we’re supposed to speak to one another on the job; the show can seem almost recklessly combative when two employees go at it. Underlings mouthing off to superiors; tearful meltdowns in the galley, right in the middle of dinner service. It also deliciously deals with the consequences of underperforming or slacking off or talking back, as conflicts and mistakes work their way up to the captain, who is never pleased.

People get fired all the time on the show, not for what they do but what they fail to do.

One of “Mediterranean’s” cheekier deckhands, Travis Michalzik, summed their existence up nicely in a recent episode: “People start working on yachts and they think they’re the ...” (He used bleepity-bleep words loosely meaning hot stuff, which, somewhere along the voyage to the end of the world, Bravo stopped bleeping out.)

Truth is, Travis said, “You’re a janitor on a floating toilet. But hey, you’re my boss, you tell me to do something, I’m going to do it, for sure.”

“Below Deck’s” captains — Lee Rosbach on the original series, whose tight-jawed disapproval is widely feared by his crew; on “Mediterranean” it’s the more empathetic but no less demanding Sandy Yawn — have had to issue swift judgment on matters that would take months to work their way through a typical personnel grievance process. They’ve let go of lazy deckhands, stews who lied on their resumes, a conceited boatswain who couldn’t manage his team and a chef whose bland entrees never impressed the guests.

Currently on “Mediterranean,” Captain Sandy is realizing that the chef she has hired this charter season — a surly, French-trained chef from Siberia named Mila Kolomeitseva — possibly-maybe can’t cook. On the first outing, Mila took a look at the American guests’ preference sheets (where they list their favorite foods, allergies, or dislikes) and decided to serve tacos and enchiladas, using jarred salsa, bags of pre-shredded cheese and (this one really sent “Below Deck” fans reeling on Twitter) a box of taco shells. The chief stew, Hannah Ferrier, refused to serve a plate of Chef Mila’s nachos (featured ingredient: canned corn); the next night the chef reheated the guests’ steaks in a microwave.

“We’re in trouble,” the captain sighed.

“If you had seen the control room on the [production] boat when those nachos came out, you would see that [what happened] is equally surprising to us,” Samton says. For all their efforts to cast a yachting crew who seem to have experience and good references, the rush to fill the jobs before the charter season begins often means having to take a last-minute chance. In the past, Samton says, there might have been time to audition chefs and have tastings of their dishes; by the time anyone realized Mila might not be a five-star chef, the charters were underway. That’s a gift to producers, but Samton hastens to note: “This happens all the time in yachting.”

It is precisely this sort of crisis that keeps fans addicted — the crew’s constant scurrying to provide the luxury that their guests expect. “Below Deck” teaches us that luxury is largely a facade, sustained every waking (and sleeping) second by the help. The show updates that ancient transaction between master and servant — the wealthy passenger who orders her martinis a very specific way, and the exhausted stew whose job it is to bring them to her with a smile.

One American guest on the 2017 season of “Below Deck Mediterranean” was such a picky eater that he explicitly forbade any onions in any dish served to him, which was such an obnoxious and childlike demand that I cheered with comradely approval when the chef, a California surf bro named Adam Glick, impetuously served him a soup with a hint of onions in it.

Because to hell with that guy, right? Grow up and get a man’s taste buds. Enough with this whole idea that the customer is always correct. “Below Deck” gives viewers the thrill of looking down on the rich. Viewers sometimes judge them far more harshly than the help.

At the same time, “Below Deck” satisfies the Yelp reviewer that lurks inside each one of us, the customer who needs to speak to a manager. Chef Adam nearly lost his job for his rebelliousness. Captain Sandy struggled to understand why he was compelled to include onions. It remains a deep mystery only to anyone who hasn’t thought enough about class conflict.

Salaciously, “Below Deck” operates in a world that has mostly missed or has license to ignore the #MeToo movement, another way in which reality TV provides a conduit to some vicarious other place. Crew members hop into bed with one another (tiny twin beds in a warren of tight berths, way below deck, every move watched by cameras) for quick sexual relief or a desire for a serious relationship. The captains on both shows caution them not to do this at the start of each season. Those of who have watched three decades of reality TV know — and expect — they will anyhow.

The crew’s banter, whether in the galley, on deck or on shore leave, is a bracing update of salty, seafaring wags of yore. They cuss, they call each other names, they immediately find and pick at each other’s personality flaws. Thanks in part to their understanding of what makes a watchable TV show, they have no fear of sexual suggestion or innuendo. They bluntly discuss their cravings for sex; something about the yachtie life unleashes the libido. In one season, a crew member broke what seems to be yachting’s last taboo and had sex with a charter guest.

Several seasons ago, I would watch “Below Deck” with a fuddy-duddy’s disapproval, as the crew spent their nights off in port, binge-drinking and getting handsy with anything that moves. Typically an argument breaks out — or even a physical fray. The women are just as blotto and belligerent as the men. And then, by morning, they somehow rise, proof that youth is beauty. They sheepishly apologize and get to swabbing and shining in time to greet their next group of swells.

In all that carefree sunshine, they forget their miseries and I forget mine — forgetting even that I have a job watching television. Such is the fleeting joy of a changed reality.

Below Deck Mediterranean  (one hour) airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Bravo.