How reality TV triumphs in the lockdown era

RuPaul's Drag Race Behind the Scenes
(Image credit: VH1)

Instead of a packed ballroom with barely any space between the star-studded tables, tonight’s Golden Globes will still be glitzy but without the boozy antics at the Beverly Hilton. Despite award season shifting by a few months, the landscape is far from back to where it once was and this celebration will likely resemble the virtual Emmy telecast. It has been nearly a year since the world shifted into pandemic mode and we are still in the middle of the global COVID-19 crisis. Virtual events and video conferencing platforms like Zoom have become the norm and productions have introduced protocols to keep the cast and crew as safe as possible during this unprecedented time. Last March, film and TV sets were shut down, sports were canceled and postponed and theaters (both movie and stage) were shuttered. The ESPN docuseries The Last Dance captured the exhilaration and high drama of watching exceptional athletes, while Netflix’s Tiger King tapped into a salacious narrative that was in short supply. It was practically impossible to purchase toilet roll and sanitizer, but certain shows became a respite for when the 24-hour news cycle became too much. 

Marvel movies and James Bond kept getting new release dates and there was enough television in the can for the months to come. Sure, some shows that aren’t filmed months in advance like Riverdale ended abruptly (and have since finished those arcs), while CBS’ All Rise was the first drama to pull off the virtually shot episode (quickly followed by Mythic Quest). Meanwhile, late-night talk shifted to attics and home offices before reverting back to the studio without a live audience (and with most guests appearing virtually). In these unchartered waters, it is hardly surprising that some genres have adapted better than others while one-off series embracing quarantine have mostly been a string of well-intentioned misfires — including Coastal Elites, Love in the Time of Corona, and Social Distance. Reviews for these lockdown anthology specials have been mixed and with so many other options on hand, it isn’t surprising that viewers aren’t clamoring for entertainment that matches the reality of the current landscape. But what about actual reality TV?     

Debuting in 2013, Bravo’s Below Deck wasn’t on my viewing radar until last summer. Having finished all three seasons of Selling Sunset, a vacant slot opened up for this particular genre and the sheer amount of available seasons (and spinoffs) made the superyacht series an enticing prospect. WandaVision has showcased how sitcoms are a respite and while I agree with this summation (Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso, and Bewitched have given me great comfort recently), my pandemic TV diet also requires a dash of reality escapism. The Bravo sailing adventure ticks that box while serving up glamorous global locations from the Caribbean to Tahiti. I am very late to this party but it quickly became clear why the Below Deck franchise has thrived — and continues to reach new fans during this period. 

Clicking play on the recently aired Season 8, it was apparent from the off that COVID-19 was going to factor. “February 11, 2020” reads the date in the first episode, immediately cluing the audience in and causing me to yell at the screen for them to get out while they can — as if I was watching a real-life horror movie unfold. The previous season had been a mess of toxic masculinity that had turned the drunken nights off into a series of incredibly unpleasant shouting matches (arguments are intrinsic to reality TV but this was next-level awful). Would the real-world encroaching on my escapist watch turn this into an exercise in misery? 

The short answer is no, rather, the initial blissful ignorance of the 'My Seanna' crew felt like watching a funhouse mirror version of a year ago with Wuhan and then Italy as the virus hot spots of this virus. Calls to family members included one person’s mother extolling the virtues of mask-wearing and the obligatory toilet roll shortage mention. The first episode begins with returning bosun Eddie Lucas (who last appeared in Season 3) arriving on an empty ship with Below Deck mainstay Captain Lee Rosbach missing. Eddie quickly discovers that Captain Lee is at the hospital after slipping and falling in the shower. Other ominous early signs include new chef Rachel having her purse stolen days before filming started throwing her through an emotional loop (having to replace personal documents at the best of times is frustrating let alone when you’re away from home) and deckhand Avery departing in the first episode due to news from home that his grandmother is very sick. 

Below Deck Season 8 finale

(Image credit: Bravo)

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes a case of reading into every illness as a sign that the universe is throwing up roadblocks, and tension is increased because of outside uncertainty. No doubt, I am attributing certain obstacles and challenges to the pandemic that is mere coincidence, however, Rachel’s mid-season outburst (and brief departure) is a reaction to her Italian boyfriend’s precarious situation. Ultimately, the season is cut short in the episode “Premature Evacuation” after the last two charter groups cancel (because of the pandemic), and Captain Lee calls an emergency meeting on March 14 to tell the crew they will be flying home the following day. 

The abrupt end means there are unresolved storylines — one interior crew member has only just been fired and her replacement was not allowed to fly out due to COVID restrictions — and it is hard to not think about the precarious position we are still in (although Season 9 is already at the casting stage). Reality TV is often labeled as inauthentic and staged, but the panic and confusion (and perplexed reactions to what is going on back home in the US, UK, and Australia) accurately capture the mood. Instead of the typical reunion in Andy Cohen’s Clubhouse studio in New York City, the cast joined the host from their various homes. Rather than storming off, they simply threaten to log off (as one cast member suggested he might do).

Below Deck is far from the only reality show to chronicle this unprecedented period and Season 12 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race crowned the winner after a grand finale switched the main stage for in the contestant's living rooms. Meanwhile, the current season began filming in the midst of this pandemic and this is documented in the mid-season RuPaul’s Drag Race: Corona Can’t Keep A Good Queen Down episode. 30 gallons of hand sanitizer, 5,000 masks, and 2,591 COVID tests are a few of the stats revealed, while also discussing the financial and mental health impact of this period. When watching the series, the most noticeable on-camera change is plexiglass partitions between the judges but a lot more unseen precautions are now part of the daily Drag Race competing experience. 

The second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK has a unique perspective as the first half was filmed pre-first lockdown and resumed 7 months later in a COVID protocol world. The interim period has given contestants time to perfect their drag, but the Queen’s On Lockdown special also depicts the economic challenges during this fraught time when live performance ceased to exist (in a conventional fashion). Similar in some respects to the Season 13 behind-the-scenes documentary, the UK version is even more effective because it occurs mid-way through and the contestants went from a career-high to terrifying uncertainty. It is another case of reality TV capturing the mood in an authentic and relatable manner. Meanwhile, network TV shows including procedurals, drama, and sitcoms are struggling to find that balance.  

It is impossible to ignore how much this has taken over our lives and it is important to show mask-wearing, but there are times where it becomes a distraction. This is Us has struggled with characters holding masks in their hands when at a safe distance or it starts to slip beneath the nose while talking. It is much more successful (and tear-inducing) when showing how technology connects us during this socially distanced period. Much like real life, these shows are trying their best to adapt, and the results vary greatly. There aren't going to be any Golden Globes given out for Best Pandemic Series, but RuPaul's Drag Race and Below Deck would be the frontrunners of this unconventional category.  

Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.