June 23, 2021


The have and have-knots

By Sam Twyford-Moore

Hannah Ferrier on Below Deck: Mediterranean. Image via Bravo

On Bravo’s reality television hit ‘Below Deck’ filming in Australia

The wiry, prolific American film director Steven Soderbergh – who regained mainstream attention when his decade-old Contagion became the go-to movie of the COVID-19 pandemic – marks the end of each calendar year by uploading a list to his website diarising every book, film and television series he has consumed over the previous 12 months. His list from 2018 was how I first heard about the popular reality television series Below Deck. In May and June of that year, Soderbergh managed to soak up 42 individual episodes of the show. On some days he watched up to five episodes, which was quite the feat given that each episode typically runs, without ads, for around 40 minutes.

Soderbergh’s excessive consumption led to several entertainment news outlets noting the oddity of the director’s devotion to the show. But Below Deck, it turns out, deserves devotion. The series, taken as a whole, is the perfect recipe for parked-brain television, and its winning formula is consistent across its original series and two spin-offs, Below Deck: Mediterranean and Below Deck: Sailing Yacht (the latter has just closed out its second season; the first to air with complex COVID-19 protocols in place).

The show documents the daily working lives of the captain and working crew – deckhands, interior stewards and a private chef – of a luxury superyacht, and then captures the various trials put upon them by paying guests. The demands are what you would expect from the super-rich who can afford to hire out a 150-foot superyacht (although it’s rumoured that production offers some discounts). Jackie Siegel, who “starred” in the damning 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, about an ultra-wealthy family attempting to build an obscene 85,000 square foot house in Florida, has featured. In this way, Below Deck takes the upstairs-downstairs operations that have fuelled the various fictions of Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) and sets them afloat. It’s not all work and no play though. The other major dramatic component of the programming kicks in at the end of any “charter” when the crew goes out for drinks at some nearby dive bar or disco, providing a chance to debrief, blow off steam and drive up the interpersonal drama between them. Crew members hook up and fall out. Nights often end with screaming matches on exotic beaches, before the ship’s workers are back on the boat, hangovers brewing. Fresh guests board in the morning and the whole scenario hits reset.

Below Deck was the brainchild of canny producers – one of whom had worked on a private yacht belonging to a rich New York family – and was sold to the Bravo reality television empire. Bravo, an American television network, was launched in 1980 and originally showcased performing arts and independent films, but in the early 2000s, with the successful launch of the original iteration of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it developed a taste and talent for reality television. Bravo came to dominate the market it helped pioneer with its staple franchises of The Real Housewives and Top Chefs and, in 2013, Below Deck became an unlikely addition to that roster. The logistics for mounting the production of the show – adding an entire film crew to the already cramped quarters of any yacht, no matter how super – made it seem an impossible proposition. How the show comes together, year after year, remains a beguiling magic act.

In April it was announced that the show would be adding two new international spin-offs, one set in the cold climes of Norway and the other in Australia (reportedly filming in The Whitsundays). Norway proved a surprising potential shooting location, but Australia made immediate sense. Not only because of our large coastline, but because the show’s producers, tapping into local boating culture, had cast Australians in the American show for years. Not that many Australian viewers would know.

The latest seasons of Below Deck screen in Australia on Foxtel, and concurrently through the Hayu app, neither of which possess the same subscriber base as Netflix. (Hayu – glitchy but good value – houses most of the Bravo stable.) As a result, Below Deck doesn’t command the same attention from Australian audiences as its shoddier free-to-air counterparts. And it might be for that reason that Australians seem largely unaware of the existence of someone like Hannah Ferrier, a Sydney-based yachtie who has starred in five seasons of Below Deck: Mediterranean. Ferrier, bright-eyed and blonde-haired, is a strong presence. As chief steward, she is a fair and firm boss to her small team of interior workers, and she holds strong opinions on those around her, with her comments projected and intercut in the typical reality television to-camera, confession-booth style. A low tolerance for bullshit seems to reside somewhere within her character.

On Below Deck, the chief stew and the captain are typically the only recurring roles. The rest of the cast rotates each season. Ferrier outlasted the first captain of Below Deck: Mediterranean, only to come up against Captain Sandy Yawn, a tanned and wizened Fort Lauderdale skipper. Ferrier and Yawn were often filmed at odds with each other, although there seemed to be, at least initially, a love-hate element to their fractious working relationship.

Ferrier’s big arc across the show was planted in season three, when, after a night out, and after being called to the bridge, Ferrier runs away from Yawn in the grip of a panic attack. Yawn, believing only that Ferrier is physically ill, follows her chief stew to her cabin to see if she needs help. Ferrier, voice quivering, proffers: “It’s anxiety, Sandy.”

In that moment, Ferrier became the face of a certain kind of “millennial burnout” – overworked, underpaid, and unsure of how to disclose and manage underlying mental ill health conditions in the workplace. Reality television – no matter how manufactured, stylised or overproduced – still carries a historic connection to the documentary format and, while its commentary might not run deep, the exposure of any one issue still counts. Alcohol abuse became a broad focus during the fourth season of Below Deck: Mediterranean, with the introduction of another Australian crewmember, Travis Michalzik, who was seen drinking to excess, blacking out and berating waitstaff. (The chatty and laidback Michalzik introduced himself by painting a less-than-flattering portrait of greater Perth, where he grew up: “It’s weird to see your friends who were, like, just good people, like ‘Oh, sick, they’re in jail’. Why? Addicted to the old meth.”)

Ferrier’s onboard panic attack set up a conflict that would come to a controversial head in her final season. Ferrier’s relationship with Yawn was already on the rockiest ground it had ever been on, before a fellow crewmember snitched to their mutual superior that Ferrier had brought “drugs” onto the ship. The producers and editors teased this as sensationally as they could manage, before revealing Ferrier’s drugs were anti-anxiety medications. Still, “maritime law” was repeatedly and dramatically evoked by Yawn, and Ferrier was fired for her lack of disclosure. Ferrier wrested the narrative back on the reunion episode of season five, quietly sipping from a custom-made mug that read: “I NEED A VALIUM”.

In a further shrewd move, Ferrier has gone on to launch a small business offering industry training for aspiring yachties (potentially, one imagines, supplying future cast members of the show). Since her departure, other Australians have joined the show, but none have yet to have the same cut-through as their bright predecessor. The cast members blur into each other over time, but what remains is the beautiful, precise machinery of the show.

It is yet to be seen if any current or former Australian cast members will climb aboard the local spin-off; just as it’s unclear what the broader focus of the show will be. Below Deck, like much Bravo programming, doesn’t go in for close political analyses, but it seems unlikely that the new spin-off will forgo commentary on how Australia’s tourism industry has suffered in the wake of COVID-19 travel restrictions. It will be curious too to see if the Australian cast members, filmed at home, will manage to tease out more of the class anxieties inherent in the show’s set-up. Getting topical in the tropics might just land the show not only on the small screens of the existing super-fans like Steven Soderbergh, but, at long last, on those belonging to Australian viewers too.

Sam Twyford-Moore

Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania (University of Toronto Press). 

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