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'Below Deck,' reality producers stepped in to stop a drunken assault — this time

This season of Bravo's <em>Below Deck Down Under </em>follows the crew of The Northern Sun through the waters of Cairns, Australia.
Mark Rogers
/
Bravo
This season of Bravo's Below Deck Down Under follows the crew of The Northern Sun through the waters of Cairns, Australia.

On Monday night's double episode of Bravo's Below Deck Down Under, viewers saw show producers intervening to prevent a sexual assault by one crew member (a man) on another. After the offender was fired, another crew member (a woman) who had been repeatedly refusing to hear "no" from the guy she was interested in, and who had been touching him repeatedly after he asked her not to, was shown the door as well.

It was a jarring look for a franchise that has frequently reveled in what's sometimes been abusive behavior by very drunk people for a total of 24 seasons — 10 of original Below Deck, seven of Below Deck Mediterranean, four of Below Deck Sailing Yacht, one of Below Deck Adventure, and two of Below Deck Down Under.

To set the scene, in the world of these shows, you have the interior crew — usually, but not always, women — who serve guests meals and drinks, clean cabins, do laundry, and run the entertainment. The exterior crew (led by the bosun) — usually, but not always, men — clean the boat, handle docking and run the tender (the little auxiliary boat), manage all the jet skis and giant inflatables and other things that are set out for rich people to use, and set up and break down everything on the outside for guests. There's also a chef. As for the guests, they're rich enough to charter the yacht, but not so rich that they have a yacht of their own.

The rhythm of the show is that after a charter trip ends, the crew cleans up, and they have a night out in whatever cool location the yacht happens to be docked. Typically, they go to a restaurant for dinner and then some kind of a club to drink and dance, and then they stumble back onto the yacht, sometimes they fool around, sometimes they get in the hot tub, and then they pass out for the night. Hookups are frequent.

'She said no'

On Monday night's double episode, headed back to the yacht in a van after a night of drinking, third stew Margot was half-passed-out with her head in bosun Luke's lap, and Luke (who's been pursuing her all season) began to make "jokes" about hooking up with her later. Aesha, the chief stew (if you watch Project Runway, you just saw Aesha as Bishme's model), clocked this situation and its dangers immediately. As they got out of the van, she announced that she was going to see Margot inside and put her to bed, and Luke was going to scram. And that's what happened, at first. Aesha tucked Margot into her upper bunk in her tiny cabin and stepped out, and that should have been the end of it.

Suddenly, there was Luke, walking around the crew area completely naked, holding a towel in front of his crotch.

But there was a power outage on the boat that led to some chaos. And suddenly, there was Luke, walking around the crew area completely naked, holding a towel in front of his crotch. He let himself into Margot's room, where she was fully either asleep or passed out, depending on how you choose to describe the heavy sleep that follows heavy drinking. Fully naked, he hoisted himself up and crawled into her bed.

That's when the producer voices started, ordering Luke to get out of Margot's bed. He initially resisted, there was a confrontation that included a lot of door-slamming, and eventually Luke went back to his own room, angry. He was hauled off the boat and put in a hotel, and in the morning, Luke was fired. (There are more details in this good wrap-up from Andy Dehnart at Reality Blurred.)

But wait, there's more

Now: There are layers upon layers in a show like this. The show narrative is that the captain, Jason, made the decisions to remove Luke from the boat and to fire him, but it's hard to imagine he had any choice. One would hope the Bravo people (including the lawyers) would have had it no other way, no matter what releases anybody signed.

But whatever the production involvement, the story as presented by the show ended up effectively laying out some pretty basic pieces of how an event like that can happen, and what the aftermath can be. It showed how Aesha identified the risk and tried to protect Margot, and how quickly things turned in the close quarters of a boat where people have easy physical access to each other. It showed how Margot blamed herself in the morning for being drunk and too "flirty." Aesha and Tzarina, the chef, assured her that no matter how drunk you are, nobody gets to assault you. These things might seem pretty basic to people who follow discussions about sexual violence, but they're relatively advanced for, you know, Below Deck.

Luke's departure was not the end. Second stew Laura had grown interested in a Brooklyn-born deckhand named Adam. At dinner, Adam told her plainly that he only wanted to be friends. She persisted: He would never be interested in sex with her? No. He wanted to be friends. He sometimes smiled nervously, or chuckled, but he communicated clearly.

Laura was continuing to touch Adam constantly, including in the hot tub. At one point it appeared that she grabbed him under the water, given the way he jumped away and said 'STOP that.'

But later, on the yacht, Laura was continuing to touch Adam constantly, including in the hot tub. At one point it appeared that she grabbed him under the water, given the way he jumped away and said "Stop that." He eventually agreed to a massage that she swore wouldn't be sexual (perhaps hoping it would defuse the situation), but when she actually came into his room to try to do it, he insisted the door stay open and then tried to bore and ignore her into leaving. And when she crawled up on his bed without being invited, there were more producer voices, telling her to buzz off and get out of his room.

In the morning, because of this behavior and because Laura decided to go around telling everyone Luke shouldn't have been fired and eye-rolling to Margot about how it wasn't as if Margot had really told him no, and it wasn't as if he would have actually assaulted her (thus indicating she was not on board with the whole "respect people's boundaries" idea), Laura was also dismissed. And interestingly, Adam blamed himself much as Margot did, saying maybe he wasn't telling Laura no seriously enough, or firmly enough, maybe he was trying too hard to be nice about it. It is a curious impulse, this idea that had someone understood that you really did not want them to do what they were doing, surely they would not have done it.

Much-too-drunken sailors

There's some useful material in this episode that burbles up from all the absurdity. Obviously, it's about consent, and about how you cannot climb into the bed of a person who hasn't invited you particularly if they're passed out or sleeping, particularly if you're naked. And furthermore, you can't keep handling anybody of any gender when they've asked you not to. These are, you might say, the headlines.

Alcohol plays a critical role in many reality-show franchises. Your housewives, your people who stop being polite and start getting real, and most definitely your bachelors and bachelorettes, all have historically done a tremendous amount of drinking. But 'Below Deck' has always had, to me, a particularly fraught relationship with being not merely drunk, but blackout drunk.

But the whole incident raises another uncomfortable issue. Alcohol plays a critical role in many reality-show franchises. Your housewives, your people who stop being polite and start getting real, and most definitely your bachelors and bachelorettes, all have historically done a tremendous amount of drinking. But Below Deck has always had, to me, a particularly fraught relationship with being not merely drunk, but blackout drunk. Uncomfortable levels of physical aggression and confrontation have sometimes followed these nights out, as have mornings in which apologies are of limited value coming from apologizers who clearly have no memory of what they did. In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Eddie Lucas, who's appeared on several seasons of Below Deck as a deckhand and bosun, said this about the nights out:

And then also, when we get off charter, and they're [the producers are] like, "Oh, you know, go out, have dinner, have a good time." You're like, "I'd rather just get some sleep" and they're like, "No, you're gonna drink. You're gonna drink and you're gonna stay up until four in the morning, and you're going to like it!"

As Tzarina said, the alcohol is obviously not an excuse for the behavior, but encouraging this kind of drinking has risks. And watching the producers swoop in here only reminds you how often they do not swoop in. They watch people get in fights, punch things, scream at each other, drink until they're sick, drink until they have to be carried home, drink until they have no idea what they're doing — in a way, seeing producers become visible in one instance makes them hover like ghosts at the edges in all the past situations they've allowed to unfold (encouraged to unfold?) without any obvious intervention. Whether any other case like this has come up, I don't know. But many, many of these nights have looked like they could erupt dangerously at any time, and I can't remember ever hearing a producer say, "You've had enough, stop drinking, go to bed." Either they haven't done it, or they haven't wanted to show that they did it.

And then this week, Deadline reported that attorneys who say they represent a number of cast and crew from NBC Universal's reality shows (that seems to mostly mean Bravo) sent a letter to the company demanding that possible evidence be retained in anticipation of future litigation over what the letter calls "grotesque and depraved mistreatment of the reality stars and crewmembers." And the first bullet point they allege is plying people with alcohol (while denying them food and sleep) in an effort to intentionally degrade their mental health. Another is "covering up acts of sexual violence."

I watch this show as a workplace show, as hard as that might be to believe. I like it for the parts where the impossible guests want endless espresso martinis and the deck crew is desperate not to have to inflate the water slide again and everybody is juggling impossible tasks.

I'm not going to lie: I often fast-forward through the crew nights out at this point, precisely because they always seem vaguely menacing. I watch this show as a workplace show, as hard as that might be to believe. I like it for the parts where the impossible guests want endless espresso martinis and the deck crew is desperate not to have to inflate the water slide again and everybody is juggling impossible tasks. I am bored stiff by long sequences where people do shots and slur into each other's ears and scream at each other in the hot tub. You know what I like? I like the tension of a moment where the chef forgot that one of the guests is gluten-free and now they have to improvise. I like the parts where somebody suddenly wants an umpteen-course dinner and the crew is shorthanded because somebody is seasick. I like it when rich people insist on their beach picnic and then get rained on.

And, as with every good reality show, I admit I like it when people I don't like get their comeuppance, usually in the form of getting fired. If one person isn't doing their share of the work and the captain calls them in and says they're bounced, that offers a little shiver of satisfaction, just like when a jerk gets voted off Survivor. Not like this, though. Really, not like this.

The thing is, all that stuff, all that kind of lighthearted workplace stuff, comes alongside all the parts that I might fast-forward through, but they still happened. (For the "all this is entirely scripted!" crowd, let me say: I wish.) And on the one hand, it's good to know there's something producers will step in to prevent. On the other hand, it would be good to let people stay in and get some sleep.


This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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