“The State, It Is Me”: MTV’s Siesta Key and A Hope You Never Hoped For.
MTV’s unscripted reality program Siesta Key follows a group of young adults as they spend their summers in their hometown of Siesta Key off the southwest coast of Florida. The show claims “[n]othing is off limits while these friends figure out who they want to become.” Who they are is one thing; who they become is something else. Now flush into its second season, Siesta Key has devolved from pop entertainment into a morass of class warfare. The second season applies editorial discretion to illustrate how the affluence of successful parentage flows downward into nepotistic power. To filter out the drinking and partying and sex and drugs removes these superficial impurities and leaves behind an unpleasant theme: the haves versus the have-nots.
Viacom, a mass media conglomeration, owns MTV. And MTV broadcasts Siesta Key. You may remember Viacom over the recent imbroglio between shareholders National Amusements, Inc. and CBS Corporation. Regardless the spats amongst the firm’s ownership groups, Viacom as a company continues to post record profits. Much of that comes from advertising earned by content distribution arms like MTV.
Siesta Key is of the genre of unscripted television, a sector Viacom’s CEO, Bob Bakish, describes, in its most recent annual report, as “a better fit for the young MTV audience, [and offering] more compelling economics for the company . . . .” When Bakish references “compelling economics”, he suggests unscripted TV aligns with the firm’s goal to cheaply produce content, make it available to consumers, and transfer wealth from advertisers to shareholders. The network’s choice to feature unscripted content is a business decision; it choses shows that are less expensive to produce: no sets, no costumes, no (formal) scripts, et cetera. This is akin to a CEO eliminating highly-paid staff while implementing zero-cost accounting to claim the savings as revenue. For a firm concerned with a perception of balancing social good against material prosperity, it’s interesting it chose to broadcast a show that flaunts material prosperity at the cost of social good. And make no mistake, the material prosperity flowing into Siesta Key, Florida is not like prosperity flowing into other communities across the United States.
Residents of the exclusive Floridian haven earn, on average, 28 percent more than the rest of the country. Around 67 percent of Siesta Key residents are categorized as white, and the U.S. Census Bureau lists their real median household income around $81,000. The same government agency calculates the average American’s real median household income at $48,000. (And those of us who live in Kansas earn, on average, $44,000 per year. Siesta Key residents out earn Wichitans by more than double the median household income.) These figures fail to include cost of living and other economic factors, but they do provide a comparative snapshot of Siesta Key against the rest of the country. Now that we’ve established the economic differences between Siesta Key and the rest of America, let’s look at how the halls of affluence reach from a small barrier island in the Golfo de Mexico to grab audiences in front of set-top boxes around the nation. To do so requires deeper investigation.
The TV show Siesta Key stars serial philanderer Alex Kompothecras, the early-20s son of parvenu Gary (of the same name), who made his bones (pun!) as a chiropractor turned pitchman for 1-800-ASK-GARY, a service he founded to match victims with suitable lawyers and doctors. Alex, around whom all others orbit, has graduated college and begun law school; he hopes to be a trial attorney. During the summer, he and his friends return to Siesta Key to do whatever early twenty-somethings do while looking for work: meet for coffee, meet for drinks, and host or go to parties. Unsubstantiated internet posts suggest Gary saw his son’s opulent lifestyle and thought it might make for a good television reality show. He fronted $140,000 for a pilot episode which turned into the now-series Siesta Key. And a show about a Floridian rake who drives a four-engined boat would not be the first attempt by media conglomerates to sell monied life to un-monied viewers.
Jennifer and I fell into Siesta Key because we thought it made for a fun candy dish to share. And the first season was exactly that—a sugary drama along the lines of MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. This unscripted reality show was a spinoff from another program, The Hills. The implicative title Laguna Beach reaches beyond its descriptive annunciation “[t]he real” as object instead of reflection of the early Aught’s teen drama The O.C. Not convinced? Look further. The O.C. attempted to conjure the same magic cast by Beverly Hills 90210. Stories about wealth resonate in the United States the same way novels about aristocracy enthralled Romantic and Victorian Britain readers. Naysayer still? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in search of a wife.” While unscripted reality shows as a genre are themselves relatively new, I would be remiss not to mention that novel means “new” in French. Before the novel, readers read poetry. Ah, sweet, sweet poetry!
Beverly Hills 90210 and The O.C. each feature hardscrabble street toughs who find their way out of sympathy shone by benevolent and wealthy do-gooders into the highest echelons of West Coast society. For The O.C., it’s Ryan who drifts through a world of large parties and small troubles. Erstwhile, he manages to elevate himself above his station through crafty social edification and streetwise smarts. In Beverly Hills 90210, it’s Dylan. Both shows were ratings gold. Today’s astute unscripted reality show showrunners have fawned over ways to recreate the successes of these early fictions.
What, then, are the differences between scripted fiction like The O.C. and unscripted reality like Laguna Beach and Siesta Key? Fiction refers to imaginary events and people, which is to say that in the scripted fiction of street-toughs-made-socialites, come-from-nothings become go-with-everythings. But Laguna Beach and Siesta Key don’t tell stories about hard luck hoodlums transforming into elite derrings-do. In the world of Siesta Key, lines divide between those who have and those who don’t. While the show doesn’t specifically define the narrative of to have and have not, it outlays a structure where to have is not to work, and to have not is to work: Siesta Key pits those who need jobs to survive against those who don’t. And this is where nepotistic power emerges. Those who have, like Alex, didn’t earn their wealth; yet, because they have it, they wield it over those who have not.
Nowhere in the unscripted reality of Siesta Key does someone from the wrong side of the tracks stumble their way into the arms of a powerful family, get adopted, and elevate themselves into a better position. Quite the opposite happens, which deviates from 90210’s and The O.C.’s playbook. The only hard-on-his-luck character in Siesta Key is Paul, Alex’s cousin. Paul’s parents died, and Alex and his father keep watch as he runs the thoroughfare of alcohol and drugs which lead to jail. Paul is without question the most interesting cast member on Siesta Key, but either he lacks the pluck to use his connections to his advantage, or those with power prefer to play the quasi-savior: they watch him languish but offer him only enough catnip to help him languish more. Paul hovers in the limbo of haves and have nots; his trust fund allows him enough to survive in Siesta Key but not enough to live, as Biggie Smalls would say, “richer than rich”. That epithet belongs to those who have.
Season Two introduces a new cast member, Cara, who plays the outsider with an inside hand. She didn’t grow up in Siesta Key, but her family owns a home there—a home replete with a personal chef. Cara has a history with Alex; they dated at the University of Tampa. What she brings to the show that other cast members don’t is an established wealth that surpasses Alex’s. Her father is a wealthy jeweler/ gemologist from New York City. She therefore is unaffected by, as she describes it, “that Kompo money”—Cara’s impervious nature allows her to break Alex’s orbit at escape velocity. But hints throughout Season Two unfurl a different kind of relationship—one between families—which transformed Siesta Key into Siesta Key.
Firstly, one of Cara’s father’s in-laws works inside the Sumner Redstone/ Viacom sphere of influence. Secondly, Cara’s sister, Mia, worked as an intern at MTV. These facts draw a line from New York City to Siesta Key. If Alex and Cara dated in college, and if Cara’s parents own a home in Siesta Key, did, then, Alex’s and Cara’s parents meet? And did Alex’s father, Gary, suggest to Cara’s father that he had an idea for an unscripted reality show for Viacom to produce and distribute? If so, did Cara’s father use his influence to place the treatment in front of the powers that be?
I wager the answer to these questions is a resolute “yes”. And, I must add, there’s nothing wrong with how these gears maneuvered the television show to air. This is how powerful people operate. Connections are made; ideas are shaped; products are sold. It’s not how the product is made that caught my attention; it’s what the product said that caught my attention. And what the product said bucks the conventionality of the rags-to-riches fiction wrought by Beverly Hills 90210 and The O.C.
90210 and The O.C. offer hope narratives. It may be unrealistic hope, yes, but it’s still hope. Tough luck characters fall under the purveyance of elites who raise them into better lives. Few such stories exist in Siesta Key; and, for this, the show offers nothing substantive. The stories of upward mobility that do exist do not arrive through meritocracy but instead through romantic relationships. Is this the reality that Viacom, MTV, and Gary Kompothecras want to show the world? It’s one thing to say you support equality; it’s another to rake in millions on shows that broadcast anything but.
The show boasts several characters—the haves and have nots—who might better be classified into those who work versus those who don’t. Alex does not work. One of his ex-girlfriends, Madisson, an SMU-trained engineer, does not work. Cara does not work. Those who don’t work form an aristocracy.
Next comes those who sort of work. There’s Alex’s current girlfriend, Juliette, who recently graduated from Florida State University and teaches barre classes. With Juliette comes Kelsey, a fashion model. And then there’s Brandon, a quasi-talented sometimes working musician. Those who work but little form the bourgeoisie.
And, finally, there are those who work to live. Chloe, one of Alex’s best friend, recently earned her real estate license. And then there’s the muscle-toned Garrett, who runs his own fitness and training company. Those who work form the proletariat.
To enumerate how these cast members interact would take more time than I have to offer. But an analysis of the first season shows how most of the aforementioned characters narrate their own episode—each functions like a modern epistolary. Viewers see Siesta Key from different perspectives. Season Two, to-date, changed the method. Thus far all episodes are narrated by Alex’s on-again off-again girlfriend Juliette. Viewers hear only one side of a larger narrative. Interspliced between Juliette’s interpretations are meet ups with other cast members, usually separated by class. Pairs from the bourgeoisie meet to discuss the aristocracy; pairs from the proletariate meet to discuss the bourgeoisie; and pairs from the aristocracy meet to discuss everybody. At some point, they all clash at some fabulous event where drunken stupor pulls down the realities they’ve so closely woven.
It is in these events—birthday parties, fundraisers, album launches (all things one might find in 90210 or The O.C.) that subtleties about class and power slide out from behind their veneers. A drunken Alex barks at Juliette that he buys (and does) everything for her. Cara draws attention to her Fendi shoes and Louis Vuitton bags such that her brands bark “L'Etat, c'est moi”—”The State, it is me.” Chloe scams Juliette for dating Alex for his money. Alex’s lush-drunk cousin Paul lambastes Juliette for wanting Alex’s money (while his own inherited funds slowly deplete). Garrett reaches up to Cara knowing full-well his fitness company cannot provide for her taste in brands. The bourgeoisie and proletariate are the wonton, and the aristocracy, the gods: They kill them for sport. The only way up for the Garretts and the Juliettes is to date (or marry) someone already in the aristocracy.
This is not to say the show is unentertaining. On the contrary, it’s fascinating. I even admit to looking forward to it. But I can’t look past one of the purported purposes of fiction—to mirror or emulate reality through the experiences of others or to describe how we wish reality would be. Science has shown that the brain makes little distinction between reading about an experience and actually experiencing it. (See endnote for amplification.) In Siesta Key, reality for the aristocracy is the life everyone hopes to achieve. And yet the behavior of the aristocracy portrays the very worst of us all—a lording of wealth and power by those who have over those who have not.
The hope offered by the show is the hope we hope we never become.
***Endnote Amplification No. 1: Any attempt on my part to claim knowledge of the purpose of fiction is a fool’s errand. One of the ways I connect with fiction is by asking how it relates to the world in which I live. This is not the only way to engage writing. Hermeneutic and Revolutionary Fictionalism are case examples. Hermeneutic Fictionalism suggests that when writers write they reach for actual truth but only appear or pretend to reach for the actual truth. Revolutionary Fictionalism claims that, while reaching for actual truth, it is the act of pretending to reach that matters most.
***Endnote Amplification No. 2: The characters I’ve written about are kids. Their brains aren’t even fully developed. I’m certainly glad no one recorded the things I did when I was right out of college. So I give them some benefits over doubts. And I believe wholeheartedly these narratives are shaped by producers and editors to make classism the theme of the show. It takes little effort to select choice lines to tell stories that display the most embarrassing aspects of our person. All that said, they agreed to appear on the show, so I have little qualm from writing about their actions.