Below Deck's 6th season doesn't look that different from any of the others on paper, but upon closer inspection, it's quietly become one of Bravo's best shows when it comes to both ratings and execution. For Below Deck's inaugural season, Bravo simply chartered a yacht for six weeks and replaced some of its regular crew with their reality show cast. The docu-series almost felt like a point-and-shoot presentation of what went on on a luxury yacht and it wasn't particularly dramatic or sensational.
After spending two seasons gaining some sea legs, Below Deck hit its stride in season 3 when it lit on some lightning in a bottle casting in green stewardess Rocky and the particularly juicy reality twist of her romance with Eddie the bosun, which went undetected by everyone including producers until the end of the season. Since then, Below Deck's been a dependable Real Housewives alternative, satiating the same desire for luxury voyeurism, but tempering the indulgence with self-deprecating comedy and a more relatable main cast.
Interestingly, Below Deck season 6 doesn't really deviate from this formula, yet somehow it feels like the show's leveled up playing its own game. The locale has shifted from the Caribbean to Tahiti, giving everyone including the audience a new environment to explore. The guests have taken a bit of a back seat this year, occasionally acting antagonistic, but for the most part steering clear of the cartoonish villainy and ludicrous demands that have distinguished them in past seasons. The Upstairs half of the Upstairs/Downstairs vibe Below Deck has cultivated remains aspirational, but in the background and thus satisfies curiosity about how the other one percent lives without feeling obnoxious or indulgent. But finally, what's really made season 6 so compelling is its believability. Every narrative from the exterior crew chafing under woefully bad management to Chief Stewardess (and de facto star) Kate Chastain's frustrations with an underperforming crew member all feel more organic this year, despite the fact that Below Deck is no stranger to producer interference.
Last season on Below Deck, the cast was stacked with a greenest of the green crew and most if not all of the drama was laid at the feet of their inadequacy and its consequences. Season 6 has done an about-face on that philosophy and instead cast a classically trained chef with years of yachting experience under his belt, deck crew-members who've actually lowered an anchor before and a steward who is a legit professionally trained butler. While what we're seeing is still heavily choreographed in the sense that the dancers have been hand-picked, at least the show's realized it’s just as fun watching people excel at their jobs as it is watching clearly under-qualified people screw up. And as Below Deck is evolving, other Bravo series... aren't.
While Below Deck has remained fairly steady in the ratings for the past three seasons, Bravo's flagship Real Housewives franchises have been lagging. This year, the innocent-by-comparison yachting docu has more than once beaten Housewives OG Orange County in the ratings, left Dallas in the dust and gotten within spitting distance of former juggernaut Atlanta. Despite being replete with Bravo's typically pleasing formula of luxury meets manic melodrama, the Real Housewives shows now only survive by finding ways to reinvent and/or double down on the incestuous drama between cast members. The luxurious lifestyles have gotten stale and now the only thing left to hold audience attention is cast conflict that is all too often fueled by substance abuse and/or social media. Granted, the Real Housewives franchises never aspired to be much more than that, but what doesn't evolve dies out, and if their ratings are any indication, it looks like the writing's on the wall for rich ladies fighting on gilded playgrounds.
Below Deck doesn't feel as staged or sensationalized because it's honest about the conditions under which any of its melodrama occurs. People crammed into tiny living spaces in order to provide round-the-clock service to stupidly wealthy people have earned their right to be petty, drunken messes. The fact that this season they're doing that and their jobs with aplomb makes for both relatable and aspirational content - a true reality tv sweet spot.