Southern Charm is a reality television show created and broadcast by Bravo, a basic cable satellite channel. Begun in 1980 as a suscription-only platform devoted to cultural programs, Bravo originally featured a PBS-like mix of international and independent films, musical shows such as Jazz Counterpart, and stage productions like the Texaco Showcase presentation of Romeo and Juliet.
Interestingly enough, the evolution of Bravo mirrors the decline of Western Civilization itself. After MGM and GE took over the channel, programming shifted from highbrow entertainment to decadent reality shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the various Real Housewives shows. Bravo’s shift from high to low is a microcosm of a macrocosmic degradation. For example, during the Elizabethan Period, educated people considered Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet pop art, middle brow entertainment that nevertheless enthralled even the rotten-tomato-toting lower classes of London. Now almost 400 years later, even most college educated people consider Shakespeare too highbrow, and theatre goers in London would much rather sit through The Lego Movie rather than a production of Twelfth Night.
It is within this context – the decline of civilization and in this case, Late Empire American culture – that Southern Charm takes its cues. Not unlike Petronius’s skewering of the excesses of Nero’s Rome, (e.g., the Romans’ obscene ostentatious consumption of food; their round-the-clock drunkenness; their loveless, indiscriminate sexual couplings), Southern Charm documents the decadent and extravagant lifestyles of a group of Republicans who live in the most glamorous city of a state that refuses to expand Medicaid.
Oh, yeah, there’s one significant difference: whereas Petronius mocked the excesses of decadent Roman culture, Southern Charm celebrates it. It would appear that people’s lives are so impoverished that they would rather live vicariously through vacuities than engage with other humans in bars and restaurants. Academics disagree as to whether Bravo’s management is cynically exploiting the “stars” of their shows in a post modern commentary on the poverty of contemporary culture or simply stuffing their pockets with money and not giving a shit.
Set in the tourist and retirement mecca of Charleston, South Carolina, Southern Charm follows former South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel as he readjusts to life outside of prison after doing 10 months for buying and distributing cocaine. Although the show purports to explore the life of Charlestonians, Ravenel is the only local featured (see characters). Besides Ravenel, the show focuses on five other main personalities, two women, and three men, all white and seemingly a couple of decades younger than 50-year old Ravenel. The cast also consists of minor characters: mothers, fathers, hook-ups, carriage tour horses, polo ponies, etc.
Essentially, the show explores the main characters’ interactions as they engage in tedious conversations in ever shifting scenic spots as they eat, drink, woo, reject, seduce. As in most other “reality shows,” the viewer peeks in on the principals’ daily routines, in this case at their plantations or town houses or out on-the-town in swanky shops, restaurants and nightclubs. In addition viewers also get to hear the characters’ personal takes on the events as they smugly backbite into the camera.
Thomas Ravenel – the son of successful politician “Cousin” Arthur Ravenel and a graduate of the Citadel, Thomas himself aspired to be a politician, unsuccessfully running for the Republican nomination in South Carolina for the US Senate but later being elected as State Treasurer. A backer of Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 Republican nomination battle, he supported Ron Paul in 2012. Of course, Ravenel’s 2008 coke conviction brought his political career to a screeching halt.
A hedonist, polo player, and wealthy man about town, Ravenel feels pressure to settle down, marry, and sire male heirs. Here’s Thomas on his way to his plantation on Edisto talking to his father about what Thomas hopes to be a bourgenining romance:
Cameron Eubanks – a native of the Palmetto state but not of Charleston, Cameron likes, according to Bravo’s website, “boating or laying (sic) on the beach with a good book.” (The Carpetbaggers perhaps?) So far on the show, she parties with the boys and engages in non-witty repartee. Having just turned 30, she offers subtle hints of her biological clock’s ticking as she shifts careers from cosmetics to real estate.
Craig Conover – Drawn from Delaware to the College of Charleston, 25-year-old Craig has stayed on in the Holy City (don’t they all) to attend the troubled Charleston Law School. The spawn of an incredibly athletic family, Craig seems more down-to-earth than other cast members, perhaps because he “finds meditation in diving, golfing, and shooting guns.”
“Om, Fore, Boom!”
Jenna King – Aspiring fashion designer Jenna hails from Sumter, South Carolina and manages somehow to be simultaneously country cute and avant garde cool (see hair). This globe trotting graduate of Trident Tech has a passion for animals, especially horses.
Shep Rose – Listing his profession as raconteur, Shep nevertheless ends each sentence with the interrogative lilt made famous by Vally Girls. He’s a man of many diverse interests, like drinking, dressing like a preppy, talking, fornicating, listening to the Grateful Dead, and hanging out with Republicans. Perhaps not the most perceptive of raconteurs, Shep describes his friend Whit (see below) as “an elitist hipster” despite the latter’s penchant for wearing pajama-looking shirts and silver chains around his neck.
Whitney Sudler-Smith – Self-proclaimed composer of “brilliant screenplays and ingenious independent films that few will see” (it appears that he and your humble sparksnote reporter have something in common). Despite having directed a film about Halston that has been “screened” on Showtime, Whit lives with his hideous mother in what the producers of the show call an “urban plantation.” He and Shep are “partnering” to open just what Charleston needs – a sophisticated rock-n-roll bar.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Not unlike The Great Gatsby, which doesn’t have a likable character in the entire novel, Southern Charm centers on the privileges and decadent lifestyles of a cast of wealthy characters; however, unlike Gatsby, not one of the characters in Southern Charm is even vaguely interesting. A quote from the National Lampoon’s parody of “Desiderata” comes to mind:
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
Would scarcely get your feet wet.
Major themes include the tension between enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle and settling down, the difficulties of maintaining successful bromances when libidos get out of hand, and lastly, how cool everyone is because they live in Charleston.
Motifs – the need to procreate, lavish dinners, hangovers, hooking up, unresponsive women turning down swashbucklers accustomed to bodice-ripping, Ravenel’s tarnished reputation. Old buildings. Nice things.
Symbols – Charleston = Rome. Whiteness is also a symbol. African Americans are virtually nonexistent. Maybe that’s why no one smokes weed.
“I am a cunning linguist.” – Thomas Ravenel, putting the moves on Catherine.
“I don’t like Brandy [her seemingly closeted gay son’s romantic female interest]. I don’t like Brandy. I don’t like Brandy. Have I made myself clear? I don’t like Brandy” – Whit’s mother.
“I often wake up drunk,” – Shep.
Discuss the title. Is it serious or ironic? Identify elements that one might find charming.
Compare and contrast Shep and Craig. What do they share in common? How are they different? Which one would you murder first?
Mothers and fathers play an important role in the series. Given how their children turned out, why do you think they’re so eager to have them replicate?
Whom do you hate least and why?