On Siesta Key, MTV’s latest attempt at reviving its slice-of-life reality TV heyday, the cast is comprised of adults—new adults, sure, but fresh out of college and recently returned home to Siesta Key, a small barrier island in the Gulf Coast, ready to buckle to the pressure of having the best summer ever. What’s clear from viewing the pilot is how badly MTV wants recreate the kind of reality television it pioneered in the early 2000s. Laguna Beach premiered in 2004, creating a now-familiar genre of reality TV—a casual group of people pretending to live their lives as they normally would, willfully “ignorant” of the camera that follows their every move as they fall into storylines that toe the line between scripted and real. According to the New York Times, Mark Ford, an executive producer on both Laguna Beach and Siesta Key, has been quoted in interviews saying that he wants to return the reality to reality TV. Unfortunately, Siesta Key fails at that.
Reclaiming the specific magic that made Laguna Beach such a compelling bore is impossible at this point; the young adults of Siesta Key are well-schooled in the mores of reality television and dutifully understand the parts they are expected to play. Watching them go through the motions of how a person “should be” on reality TV—unaffected, disinterested and laughably bad at reading a scripted voiceover—is interesting only because the cast is a well-oiled machine. All the women are blonde and taut; the men are chiseled with abs to their chins. Each character falls into their preordained place. Chloe is the gossip with a crush on Brandon, laid-back and handsome and probably a jerk. Kelsey and Garrett are new to town; to make up for their foreignness, both are exceedingly attractive human beings. Juliette and Madisson will be rivals, eventually, as both are battling for the heart of Alex, the tanned, sloe-eyed creep who is cast as the reality show’s central hottie. Off camera, Alex is actually the reason for the show’s unwelcome reception in Florida.
Alex is the son of Dr. Gary Kompothecras, a prominent chiropractor and businessman in the area who, as the Tampa Bay-Times notes, is the “Gary” behind 1-800-Ask-Gary, a one-stop shop for personal injury lawsuits that aims to match victims with medical and legal help. The show wouldn’t exist without the elder Kompothecras; as the story goes, he pitched the idea of making a reality show about his son’s life to various executives in Hollywood, funding the pilot with his own money. The project sat for a year and change until an MTV executive decided that the life of one very rich teen and his hangers-on was a story that needed to be told.
Its arrival comes with controversy: it turns out that Alex is friends with Michael Wenzel, who is one of the men in a viral “shark-dragging” video that surfaced last week, showing a speedboat dragging a shark in its wake. Wenzel has a well-documented history of animal abuse; a post on the Facebook page doyouevenfishbro shows a video of Wenzel pouring beer into the gills of a hammerhead shark in January of this year. According to WTFFLorida, Wenzel’s father is the Manatee County planning section manager. Robert Lee “Bo” Benac is another man identified in the video; his mother is Betsy Benac, the chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission. As a result of Kompothecras’s friendship with Wenzel, a known animal abuser with a flair for the dramatic and the frat-y, Siesta Key’s premiere party was cancelled due to uproar from animal rights activists who threatened to crash the event.
Wenzel himself is not in the show. He’s merely friends with Alex, but the association was enough for Alex to find himself receiving death threats. When asked by the Tampa Bay Times about the threats to his son, Gary’s answer was cryptic and slightly paranoid. “I wouldn’t say that’s the only reason,” he told the Times. “There are other reasons.” He then hung up on the reporter. Truly, there is no real reason for this show to exist—just a father’s belief that his child’s life is worthy of notice and that somehow, it can be monetized. His reasoning for necessity of Siesta Key uses language that sounds familiar to those paying attention. From the Sarasota Herald:
“I go, ‘You guys are really having a hell of a lifestyle.’ I said this would be a good reality show. Plus they’re good kids, so that was the main thing, they weren’t bad kids. I said this would be a good story because when I was growing up, you had ‘Father Knows Best,’ you had ‘My Three Sons,’ you had people with values and I didn’t see that in the TV of late.”
Consider the fact that 53.8 percent of Sarasota County—where Siesta Key is located—went for Trump in the election, and voter records show that Alex Kompothecras and his father both are registered Republicans. Hearing the elder Kompothecras refer to “people with values” and traditional sitcoms like Father Knows Best feels Trumpian at its heart: a desire to return to a simpler America. It’s not quite making America great again, but it is a strongly-held desire to bring so-called American values to the forefront, albeit via a reality show featuring beautiful young adults insisting that they will have the best summer ever, even if it kills them.
Reality TV is divorced from reality enough that these shows now occupy a liminal space between fact and fiction. The gilded, marble and gold palace shown on the first episode of Siesta Key looks like a smaller-scale Mar-a-lago; it’s way too much house for any family, but practicality was clearly not the architect’s aim. It is the home of the Kompothecras family, but it’s mostly an ostentatious representation of their wealth, and the exact kind of home savvy reality TV producers hope that their viewers will pin their dreams on. It’s a Trumpian version of the American Dream: success is measured by a yardstick made of money and those lucky enough to have it are well within their rights to revel.
It’s not that we don’t need a show like this, because one could point to many others that are just as bad but continue to enjoy decent ratings and increased viewership. It’s just that for all its visible effort, Siesta Key adheres to a formula that is no longer engaging, interesting or unique.