Earlier this week, I discovered The Bedford Stop, a reality series on Youtube set in Williamsburg “about Brooklyn girls avoiding reality.” I watched the 16:56 minute pilot episode upon reading a review of the show featured on The Gothamist.
Written by staff writer, Lauren Evans, the article begins humorously enough as Evans discloses the Vicodin haze she’s watching the show under while recovering from an undisclosed medical ailment. Her disposition towards The Bedford Stop begins open-mindedly, musing over how she doesn’t expect to hate it when a Schedule II narcotic is keeping her company. As the review progresses, Evans dismisses the show’s merit, referring to the viewing experience as “viscerally repellent.” She closes the article with a series of open-ended questions; asking what kind of audience exists for non-substantive productions like The Bedford Stop and what appeal it carries to anyone considering to watch it.
Visitors to The Gothamist appear to agree with Evans’ sentiment as many have linked to clips of the show in their comments as further evidence of the despair that Williamsburg “culture” finds itself in. A debate whether the show is actually a parody or not has since dictated the discussion.
What both visitors to The Gothamist and Evans miss in their reviews is that the very mystery of whether it’s a parody or not hints at the genius of the show’s creators. The Bedford Stop understands that reality TV, at its most lucrative, finely balances the line between truth and the aggrandized, seamlessly weaving fiction with non-fiction for the entertainment of their audiences. This formula allows the viewer to immerse themselves within the plot of the episode, regardless of how absurdly it may evolve, and inspires familiarity with the characters while they engage in larger-than-life theatrics like Teresa Giudice and NeNe Leakes, two of the most famous reality tv show celebrities featured on the Real Housewives series, have demonstrated throughout their reality tv careers.
In the pilot episode of The Bedford Stop, Olena Yatsyuk, is introduced as a main character and reality tv wildcard trope. In evidence of such, the episode revolves around her decision to hire professional photographer, Max Schwartz, to take a Tinder headshot for her. Yatsyuk is later featured in a scene where she delivers an expletive-laden tirade over the fact that Melissa, her roommate, didn’t say hi to her at Brooklyn Bowl. Despite these obvious exaggerations of character, the cast of The Bedford Stop appear to be living a life very similar to that of most modern young transplants living in New York City today; dating, nights out with friends, petty disagreements, half-hearted excuses explaining they can just work out “later” and continue enjoying happy hour for now. It simply magnifies these day-to-day life scenarios in order to bring the reality tv show essence full circle, or full production rather.
The About page on the Youtube Channel of The Bedford Stop doesn’t provide any clue into whether or not it’s real, but I hesitate to believe it’s entirely authentic because of how unapologetically it perpetuates the stereotype of New York City’s most cartoonish (and perhaps most unequivocally villainized) caricature – The Hipster. In my five years of living in New York City, it’s been my experience that people who are rosé-drinking, trust-fund Hipster archetypes are quick to downcast their own privileged nature, masking their eau d’yuppie stench by pretending to be one of the “original” locals at Pete’s Candy Store or Barcade. Furthermore, The Bedford Stop is littered with background props cementing the cartoonish Hipster stereotype it wryly pokes fun at, like the posters of Lana Del Rey (saint of the American Apparel buying, Urban Outfitters sporting collective within Millennial culture) that decorate Olena’s room.
For the cast of The Bedford Stop to reveal themselves as actualizations of Williamsburg stereotypes for public consumption would mean subjecting themselves to the abasement of the online community (much of which has already unfolded). It would also demonstrate a rejection of the social capital made possible when we subscribe to our modern culture’s “too cool but effortlessly so” brand of popularity. Effectively, it would be an admission of their tragic existences as the collective punchline of Hipster jokes that comedians across New York City have been recycling since 2008.
In contrast to these assumptions, The Bedford Stop demonstrates several clues that their cast is in on the ruse.
Most notably in the way the editing and narration resembles MTV’s hit reality TV series, The Hills, which has been openly discussed as a show succeeded by its scripts and fabricated drama. Even our introduction to Alex, the main protagonist who recently graduated from FIT and moved to New York to pursue her dreams, parallels Lauren Conrad’s move to Los Angeles for a fashion internship at Teen Vogue.
The success of The Hills was attributed to the instincts of the editors in post-production and how compellingly the conventionally attractive cast capitalized on relationship drama at the behest of producers. Similarly, The Bedford Stop takes a cast of friends and shows them navigating through situations most New Yorkers of Millennial or Gen X age would recognize while exaggerating them in ways that demonstrate their absurdity (like paying to take headshots for Tinder when everyone knows you only take headshots for LinkedIn and if it’s not that stuffy, you can use it on Tinder to suggest you’re a legitimate Adult ™ person but even then, it’s weird.)
Magnifying the tedium of everyday life in a way that both entertains and solicits “are they serious right now?” reactions from audiences is the same formula the Kardashian family used to build a multi-million empire on the back of a reality tv show sharing their intimate lives with the world; their show premiering it’s 11th season on November 15th. Clearly, the creators of The Bedford Stop are capitalizing on all of the elements that make fictional “reality” tv shows a success. Perhaps they know that The Hills maintained a steady viewership of approximately two million viewers each week and are repackaging this winning formula for a modern audience, one that just so happened to grow up debating whether Lauren or Heidi was the justified one in the deterioration of their friendship.
However, these clues demonstrating the show’s ingenuity seem to be lost in the online community’s reception towards the show.
Simone Wilson at The Patch refers to the characters as “enemies in their [sic] adopted habited”. Her review grows increasingly irritated as she refers to one of the characters as “the real demographic threat … that background chick with the caked-on bronzer, the job in ‘merchandising’ and the vocal fry that could kill a Kardashian.” From reading a collective of reviews written in the same vein of disdain, it’s obvious that the visceral response of the online community is to reject the show and the experiences of it’s characters altogether, when I would argue that this impulse to do so implies how much we refuse to accept these characters as reflections of ourselves.
David Colins at Brokelyn in contrast seems to understand the hyperbolic nature of the show, and employs the same theatrical exaggeration by referring to The Bedford Stop as “the most incredible and important piece of New York City media of the 21st Century.”
In the way the show’s creators have successfully managed to generate attention, I suspect they understand that Brooklynites love discussing their borough and themselves far more than anything else. This evidence is demonstrated by the way the local media community has bashed the show, reviling the bottom-feeding hipsterdom The Bedford Stop represents while distinguishing their own exceptionalism against the experiences of these characters. The commercial success of shows like Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, and 19 Kids and Counting further demonstrates a viewer’s voyeuristic desire to validate and comfort the superiority of their own lifestyles by watching lives outside of what we’d be willing to associate ourselves with in person. Maybe the creators of The Bedford Stop (and with the native Spotify ad, I suspect there are more than we realize) understand, like many TV executives before them, that people are attracted to shows that inspire them to reflect on the distinction of their own existences apart from the protagonists on screen while maintaining an anonymous distance.
Bobby Finger at Jezebel understands this phenomenon as shared in his retelling of his own meta experience after watching The Bedford Stop.
“After finishing its pilot episode, I questioned my own existence as a human being who lives in New York among other human beings who are capable of creating, filming, starring in, editing, and uploading something as simultaneously miserable and captivating as The Bedford Stop. Are they really here? Are they really real? Are they living and breathing in my reality? And, more importantly, am I?”
In his article, he also refers to the show as “simultaneously miserable and captivating”.
His choice of words hints at the sheer level of marketability there is for “non-substantive” tv.
Rating statistics reflect 37.7 million American viewers have watched a reality television show in 2015. Consider that The Bachelor, which will premiere it’s 20th season in January, successfully pulled in $187.3 million dollars in ad revenue in 2015, while it’s counterpart, The Bachelorette, averaged 3.2 million viewers per week. Human nature is naturally curious and our meticulously data-mined research on the nature of our entertainment choices reveal that we love to peek into the lives of strangers beyond our present day-to-day reality.
Gabriel Bell at Nylon points out that the key elements making The Bedford Stop so notable are how it isolates a sense of familiarity from the viewer by representing semblances of their own experiences on-screen. “What’s important is that The Bedford Stop is an amazingly accurate, dare we say, trailblazing look at what is happening in the neighborhood—a documentary series so unblinking and honest that the viewer feels transported into the lives of the people who define the area now.”
Perhaps the criticism of The Bedford Stop feels like criticism against my own existence.
The very nature of which is stereotyped because I live in a rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn, yeah, and maybe would live in Chelsea if I could but I’ve never considered it because my level of income in New York City contrasted with the expense of living here is a laughable subject. The truth is I do find a great sense of familiarity in the cast of The Bedford Stop, if only in that I was immediately reminded of my own conversations with friends who despite being kind, complex, and interesting people can also be vacuous in their comments about how they can “taste the difference” from Whole Foods produce and produce at a perfectly decent alternative. And similarly, I can be obnoxious in my refusal to take the train home after a certain hour despite the fact that my budget for Ubers is maxed out this month. Again. These are the priorities I live with as I go about my day to day life in NYC and the fact that The Bedford Stop captured modern life in New York City so accurately encapsulates the privileges associated with being a young, unattached professional living here.
In the closing of her review in The Gothamist, Evans suggests that if The Bedford Stop doesn’t resemble your life, it’s because your existence is based on more substantive experiences than getting a professional photographer to capture a headshot for you to use on Tinder. Her assumption fails to consider the tedious minutia of life that think-pieces across the Internet are devoted to; reflecting on largely arbitrary subjects like caring about how many followers you have on Instagram, whether you should make-out with a stranger on the first date, or what Disney princess iteration of a hot dog you resemble the most. As it stands, people are attracted to content that makes their own human experience feel validated. And The Bedford Stop fits the bill.
All of this leads me to wonder where the authority of residents who lived in New York when it was “the old New York” begins and ends. When do they become caricatures? Card-carrying oligarchs scuffling around who complain about the neighborhood changing while ignoring the socio-economic trends that have lead us all here? Maybe The Bedford Stop doesn’t entertain or amuse local New Yorkers who knew Williamsburg before it was WILLIAMSBURG but for some kid in Iowa dreaming of making it to a world beyond the banality or prejudices of his hometown, the fantasy projected in this Youtube series is as good as the real thing.
Alternatively, I’m willing to believe that the cartoonish stereotypes of both the Hipster and Crochety Old New Yorker do exist on both ends of the spectrum. But then there’s my old boss, a woman of color who has owned property in Brooklyn for 30 years who enjoys the coffee shops and added amenities that gentrification has brought to her block. Or my dear friend, a local artist and Millennial with no assets of her own who prioritizes the conveniences that modern technology afford to us while making under $48k per year and paying $500 in Student Loans on top of her rent and regular expenses each month. Multitudes exist everywhere. This isn’t news. But distinguishing ourselves from the cast of The Bedford Stop, in the way the internet community has scrambled over itself to do, feels disingenuous. Especially when I recognize so many overlapping themes surrounding our collective experience in New York City, mapping across race and socioeconomic status.
Ironically, Lauren Evans own by-line states that she lives in the “baby-pampered paradise” of Park Slope “despite my [sic] distaste for children.” Before Park Slope became the BabyBjorn enclave she despises today, it belonged to working class Irish and Italian migrants and soon after transitioned into a white family-oriented, middle-class thereafter. Do we all eschew the residents immediately before or directly after us? Is that our inheritance as New Yorkers? If it is, I can come to terms with the fact that we’re all somebody’s punchline. But dismissing a show that subverts the Hipster stereotype into an identity you’re forced to consider your own experiences and existence against? The way the internet is falling itself to do over The Bedford Stop when they may very well be in the onset of commercial fame?
Well, that’s missing the point.