TV review

The Sexist, Tone-Deaf Mess of Bravo’s ‘Relationshep’

The Daily Beast

December 26, 2017

It says something about Bravo’s total imperviousness to the real world—which bears little relation to their shows professing to be about “real” housewives—that their latest version of a dating show features a privileged white dude who needs even more help than appearing on an existing reality show affords him to find dates and hopefully romance.

Shepard “Shep” Rose, the star of Relationshep, is already on Southern Charm, which focuses on a group of rich white people fighting and fucking in Charleston. Shep is supposed to be the least toxic of the lot: He has a mop of adorably messy hair, and appears charmingly lackadaisical. Kind of like a Southern Hugh Grant.

Except Shep is not such a total floppy-haired gent. The Season 4 reunion show of Southern Charm included a thorny segment around Rose not taking no for an answer when it came to trying to kiss Chelsea Meissner. The audience tweeted in droves, as host Andy Cohen summarized, that “you can’t grab a woman and kiss her if she doesn’t want to get kissed.”

“No, I don’t think so [that it’s being blown out of proportion],” Meissner said, “but I think it’s easy for him to just get girls outside to make out with him and because I wasn’t going for it, I felt like it was a little more forced. I’m not saying he’s a monster. I’m not saying he pulled me out by the hair. But, drunk Shep is a little different.”

Cohen asked the other women for their thoughts. “Shep is used to approaching women that way and 99.9 of the time it works for him, and this is 0.1 percent of the time it didn’t,” said Shep’s buddy Cameran Eubanks, who also turns up on Relationshep. “I think that is what you’re used to.”

It seems puzzling at best, as the #MeToo movement shines a spotlight on sexual assault and coercion, on questioning the workings of the intersection of sex, power, and male privilege, that Bravo might think now would be the right moment to cobble together a knockoff version of The Bachelor where a group of women would be farmed like cattle, housed in a plush prison of a mansion, and made to drink a lot competing for the attentions of Shep Rose.

But such is the basis of Relationshep. When he visits the women, he is visiting his harem. He brings them things. He chooses who to take out on dates. Pretty soon neurosis and competition for his attention and affection become the dominant forces in this house. Really? Rose seems pleasant enough, but all this for him?

There are no black people as lead characters in Southern Charm. There are no black women, yet at least, in Relationshep. The white entitlement is both blinding and deafening.

There’s another weird factor at play in Relationshep: the presence of a female producer called Sarah, who occasionally appears on camera, and seems both a fairly typical reality TV instigator, yanking the strings of whatever puppet she needs to to get her desired scenes of romantic and sexual tension, but also kind of in thrall to Rose too, and he to her. Typically, these figures stay off-camera, but Relationshep makes its producer a central character.

We are three episodes in, and already the possibility of Sarah ending up as Shep’s choice has been raised—jokingly, but still. Sarah seems strikingly like Shiri Appleby’s character, Rachel Goldberg, in Lifetime’s meta-reality show drama UnREAL—kittenishly friendly and quietly hovering, but the manipulator of all the action. Sarah is, so far at least, devoted to Shep and his needs, and not the women. She is their sisterly enslaver.

The story set-up can only work with liberal doses of the arrested development that is Shep’s USP on Southern Charm: that he’s 37, but just a big kid really, and his friends—male and female—indulge this man-child routine because it comes with a sweet smile and a penchant for pranks like dive-bombing into swimming pools in his Speedo. He’s portrayed as the archetypal man who can’t help himself, and the women around him a team of willing, clucking enablers.

Relationshep opens with Shep as “behaving like a damn college kid,” and bemoaning the possibility of waking up aged 45 and single. “I don’t want that.” He wants two kids, he says, and to live at his beach house. But now, at 37, that same beach house is being used as harem central for the women Rose selected in the first two episodes of Relationshep in a multi-city dating dash across the country.

He says he has to make sure “these girls can live the Charleston lifestyle,” which—as Southern Charm sells it anyway—apparently only requires the ability to get drunk, throw drinks at other people, and look shocked at confected drama at dinner parties. Oh, and (for the men) wear hideous pastels, and play golf.

Before his first date, Shep tries and fails to get Sarah to iron his pants.

In one scene, Sarah lets herself into his hotel room and opens his drapes; Shep is spreadeagled on his bed in his boxer shorts.

Is he all bad? In Los Angeles one of his dates complains about having to sit through a 90-minute adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It looked a pretty idyllic setting, but she had never read any Shakespeare. Shep found his very odd, and he tells us how much he likes to read. His lexicon and diction, when he is not reveling in his immaturity, shows the outline at least of a culture-loving brain. Is he dumbing himself down for TV?

That is a hope. Shep is also astonishingly insensitive. He invites his female friend and Southern Charm co-star Landon Clements to one date, leading his date to stare as dumbfoundedly at him as we would. He does finally find a woman, Jessy, who likes books like he does, and they go book-browsing together. Charles Bukowski gets a namecheck.

And then, Shep meets ranch-working Kylie from Texas, and he’s kissing her before the last hoedown. We discover that it’s important to have a woman who knows how to dress “in a country club situation,” and that it’s important she doesn’t “rock the boat” like Kathryn Dennis, his Southern Charm co-star. For Shep, women must look decorative, drink and eat a lot, but still be slim and charming. They must be his fragrant partner, a hip and sexy mom-in-training. Wild, but not too wild. Wild for him.

Jessy tells him she doesn’t want to come to the Charleston harem. This viewer cheered Jessy’s good sense.

In New York, Shep seems to get on well with a 23-year-old called Bella, who seems intelligent and measured and completely on the wrong show. Just as they’re getting together, the focus again switches back to the spectral Sarah, when her mom is rushed to the hospital with seizures. It is she who predicts that Shep will end up with Sarah.

The selected women are set up at the beach house. Cameran asks if Priscila, who is Brazilian, “has a nice ass, being Brazilian.”

“She has a nice everything,” Shep tells his buddy.

The women immediately start competing—for what, you wonder over and over again—at the house. Peyton from Los Angeles seems the most vitriolic in her dislike of the “fucking competition” the other women represent.

Shep brings them all swimwear to wear, because obviously how they look is now his business. Sarah assures Shep he is behaving himself perfectly.

The female enabling is total. Cameran then turns up and speaks to Priscila, thus: “You’re the Brazilian one. One of the first questions I asked him [Shep] was do you have a nice ass because all Brazilians have nice asses.” Priscila looks understandably stunned at this rudeness, mixed with light and easy racism.

Kylie is dismissed as looking like “a Skipper doll.” Peyton, because she is blonde and tall, is likened to an alien. Then Cameran pimps the women out to ride a trolley bus around Charleston with Shep. Arden isn’t effusive enough for him. Kylie is missing her graduation for this dumb ride to nowhere.

Peyton, who really wants Shep (it is unclear whether because she thinks he is all that, or just because this is about beating the other women for her), notes that dolphins are the only other animals apart from humans to have sex for pleasure.

Sarah suggests Shep take Bella out for dinner, because he needs to be told to do things.

He reveals to Bella that he was in love in 2004 for a year and a half. “I won’t rest till I feel that way again,” he says. (His nickname, and name of the show, “RelationShep,” comes from this time of the deep relationship of 2004.)

Come here, he beckons her. He wants to kiss, she doesn’t want to. We’re in the same territory as mentioned on the Southern Charm reunion.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Shep tells Bella. Shep’s body language and bearing, and the invasion of her space, says entirely the opposite. She still won’t, not in front of the cameras.

Out of nowhere, Sarah is here to tell the crew to give them some space. This is another bit of reality TV baloney. Shep and Bella head outside, and maybe, perhaps kiss beside a building down the street (the camera crew filming every damn moment). A good night’s work for Shep and Sarah ends with him putting his beloved producer/enabler into an affectionate headlock.

Back at the house awaiting Bella: jealousy, sarcasm, desperate inquisitions from the other women about what happened. The harem only works for Shep and Sarah if the women are reduced to competitors, chickens pecking at each other’s eyes in the coop.

One wants the tacit approval of your friends, says Shep. (Really? Only if you cannot think for yourself.) And so the next we see the women are being dressed up and forced to the beach to hang out with Shep and Shep’s friends, one of whom says to Shep about one of the women, “What if I take her off your hands?”

Shep goes for a walk with Kylie. Peyton’s hate of Kylie bubbles away. She wants to spend time with him, and when he runs into the ocean in his Speedo—everyone laughing away at his man-child behavior—Peyton joins him. For all her jittery meanness, she does ask one of his friends something haunting the edges of the viewer’s consciousness as they observe this sexist shit-show. Is this an ego boost for Shep? Does he want the girls to fight, or doesn’t he know what he wants?

Shep isn’t sure he likes Peyton’s “sassy” side.

The women laugh at being his “sister wives,” and the whole party ends up back at the beach house, where Sarah takes Shep outside to tell him that someone is on their way who he didn’t invite. (Could it be she of the deep, life-changing 2004 relationship?)

“What am I going to do about that?” asks Shep, the perfect reality star, guiding the narrative at key cliffhanger moments.

Sarah’s manipulations are staple for the genre: an unexpected entrance on a dating show is akin to one on a soap opera. But most likely the piranha fishbowl Shep and Sarah have created for the women will be maintained, with more fights and insecurity as the competition for Shep’s affections continues.

It is discomfiting to watch the women be put on relentless trial, and not for Shep to answer the case of why he is worth their attention, or worth their competition. Shep’s standing and quality are both a given on this show, but why?

When will one of the women ask what kind of man would bring a group of women together to fight over him? When will one of the women ask why they are being manipulated in this pursuit, and when will one of them ask why the key agents of their manipulation are other women?

Believe the snappy scenes and jaunty music, and you’ll believe Relationshep is just another harmless reality romance circus. But it’s really a grim glimpse of male privilege at its most sad and grim, brightly furnished with hip swimming trunks, beach trips, and margaritas. Shep Rose, who may well be a lovely guy, doesn’t appear so desirable on a show designed to make him look desirable.

It is only three episodes old (Relationshep returns on Jan. 1), but one thing is clear: The women of Relationshep do not need Shep Rose. They do not need to fight for, or prove anything, to Shep Rose. Shep Rose has everything to prove that he is worthy of them; but it is unlikely that he and his female co-conspirators will rise to that challenge. On that basis alone, Shep and Sarah deserve each other.