“In your little Alex kingdom, you can
hook up with whoever you want and not, like, hurt anyone,” snaps the proto-popular-girl Juliette, on
Monday's episode of MTV’s new reality TV soap, Siesta Key. Standing outside her black SUV, the
object of her derision is Alex, a laconically smooth-talking bro with a laid-back smile. His
attitude—his emotions—seem to ululate like waves on a calm day, never rising above or
below a certain threshold of feeling. Even now, on the receiving end of Juliette’s vitriol, his responses
are muted. Yes, he slept with her friend Amanda. But they were never exclusive! And it was no big deal,
anyway. Juliette, who, with her dolled-up face and impeccable skin, often looks like a CGI’d version of
herself, storms off in anger. But is she really that mad? Later in the episode, she’ll attend Alex’s
Gatsby gala and make amends with Amanda. If I had to guess, I’d say she’ll probably let go of the whole
thing and sleep with him, again.
Juliette isn’t the first person to bend to Alex’s whim on Siesta Key. There’s Madison, his more down-to-earth high school sweetheart, who he burned the summer previous by sleeping with—you guessed it—Juliette. Then there’s Kelsey, the gorgeous blonde model and textbook new girl, who Alex is effortlessly stealing away from her boyfriend, a soft-spoken meathead named Garrett. Brandon, Alex’s supposed best friend, was beginning to like Amanda, but is seemingly unperturbed that Alex slept with her behind his back. Indeed, this is Alex’s world. Everyone else is just living in it.
That’s both a figure of speech and a statement of fact, because this really is Alex’s world: his father, an uber-wealthy attorney from the wealthy enclave off the coast of Sarasota, actually hired a producer to film his 22-year-old son and his friends, then pitched it to a production company that eventually turned it into a pilot, which MTV picked up to series. Unlike its natural precursor, Laguna Beach, there is, three episodes in, only one real star, and that’s Alex. It’s clear the world—and the world of the show—revolves solely around him. As Juliette subconsciously suggests and the producers certainly understand, Siesta Key functions practically as a monarchy. Alex is king. His friends are his subjects. And his house, which is almost comically giant, is his castle. Thus, Siesta Key is much more concerned with class than Laguna Beach or its immediate successor, Newport Beach.
The most obvious manifestation of the
show’s classism bubbles up between Alex and Garrett. They knew each other from high school, but we’re
led to believe they ran in different circles. It becomes clear these circles were defined by those who had
money and those who had less.
Garrett plainly thinks Alex has a sense of entitlement, that because he’s rich he can get whatever and take whoever he wants. The more Kelsey, who got together with Garrett almost immediately upon her arrival in Siesta Key, is seduced by Alex and his wealthier friends, the more tension arises between her and Garrett. In a particularly uncomfortable juxtaposition, Alex invites Kelsey and Garrett onto his boat; later in the episode, Garrett plans a romantic picnic on the beach to celebrate their six-month anniversary. Kelsey is clearly disappointed: she wanted something fancier, akin to what Alex could provide.
These tensions came to a head on Monday's episode, during a Gatsby-themed gala Alex held to raise money for autistic adults (two of his siblings are autistic). Garrett is blatantly uncomfortable at the event, to the point that he leaves the party, accusing Kelsey of leaving him on his own to hang out with her new friends. If previews are to be believed, Kelsey stays behind, and gets a little wild with Alex in his hot tub. The king takes what the king wants.
Now, is this the most poignant depiction of American classism on television? Certainly not. And it's far from being the first teenage soap to derive drama from it (think: the other-side-of-the-track-ness of Gossip Girl and The OC). But for a show that sells itself as being about college grads back home for a summer, partying and hooking up and living large, it has offered a surprisingly authentic representation of the underlying classism that persists even amongst those that are not particularly poor. It also resists attempts at MTV-like moralizing; Siesta Key is, with its sunset hues, slow-mo smiles and pornagraphic close-ups of tanned, youthful body parts, at times a purely aesthetic delight, devoid of the heavy-handed politicking that is anathema to so many movies and TV shows these days.
Of course, many will question whether the events depicted on the show are real, because all reality TV show is scripted, blah blah blah. And, sure, all these girls (and guys) might be drawn to Alex and forgiving of his indiscretions because they want to be on TV. But that doesn’t necessarily nullify its commentary. After all, this is only Alex’s TV show because Alex’s dad was rich enough to hire a producer to film him and his friends.
Also, does it really matter, anymore, whether a reality TV show is really real? In today’s day and age, when the line between what’s real and manipulated is so frequently and consistently shifting, a reality TV show, regardless of how “fake” it is, should be able to claim artistic truth the same way a scripted TV show can.
Unless we’re talking about the reality TV show that lives in the White House.