“Just to explain,” I said to my friend about a minute into Byron Baes on Netflix, “the Gold Coast is the Vegas of Australia and Byron is like, this woo-woo weed shop beach town about an hour away.” I should have saved my breath: the provincial dichotomy is belabored as we follow Gold Coast natives Sarah Tangye and Jade Kevin Foster — an aspiring singer-songwriter and “the number one most followed male influencer in Australia,” respectively — while they relocate to Byron, “a mecca for creative types,” as Sarah puts it, and navigate the tight-knit town. Despite sharing a common appreciation for lip filler and tans, the Byron locals take great pains to reiterate how “blown-ins” from the Gold Coast are “all about short dresses and fake boobs.” In Byron, where “the energy is just a total vibe and a half,” as Jade quickly discovers, people are far more concerned with the important things in life, like how much linen you’re wearing, or how many crystals you own.
Between recording her first album, Sarah gets entangled in a love triangle with model Elias Chigros and digital marketer Nathan Favro, who has hooked up with every woman within a fifty kilometer radius, from boutique owner Hannah Brauer to holistic healer Elle Watson, also his roommate, who occasionally flirts with Nathan even when her (seemingly clueless) boyfriend is around. Jade, despite his frosted tips, flame-emblazoned tees, and Ed Hardy-esque taste for embellished denim lending him a resemblance to Guy Fieri, strikes an easy rapport with sisters Jess (a designer) and Lauren Johansen-Bell (“Jess’s sister”). His primary enemy is Sarah’s agent (and only friend), Alex Reid, who sets out to expose Jade’s fake followers, which only exacerbates the already-mounting tension between Sarah and the Byron clique. Tears and confrontations follow, as do Instagram stories and influencer-designer collabs. Someone angrily points a finger, and someone else unironically mimes a mic drop. Ceremonial cacao is brewed, and “Savvy B” is swigged. It’s not all bad, though: resident artist Cai Leplaw sells some of his art and delights at the prospect of eating dinner that month.
As an unmistakably Australian production, Byron Baes seems to follow in the footsteps of Home and Away or Neighbors, soaps in which loyalties swell then dissolve with the ease of an unbroken wave: it makes for a satisfying if anticlimactic rhythm, plotlines as melodramatic as they are utterly mundane. Though Byron Baes distinguishes itself as a “docu-soap” about influencers specifically, with Netflix describing the series as a “feed” of “the best drama content,” “#nofilter guaranteed.” Executive producer Emma Lamb told E! News that the show’s genre complements its content, because “in that world of Instagram, there are a lot of conversations around, is it real, is it not real? In the docu-soap genre, there is the same conversation.” This conceit almost warrants the word meta, with the fishbowl-type scrutiny inflicted by the Byron locals mirroring that of social media’s panoptic audience. “In the influencer world,” as Alex puts it in one confessional, “everyone is suspicious of everyone. Is this whole place just one big town filled with lies?” (subtitles note that “[dramatic music]” underscores this proposition).
Someone angrily points a finger, and someone else unironically mimes a mic drop. Ceremonial cacao is brewed, and “Savvy B” is swigged.
Those kinds of parallels seem to suggest an easy affinity between influencers and reality television. Unlike other reality shows, where participants ostensibly assemble in the name of some identifiable pursuit like winning a competition or finding love, Byron Baes enjoys the relative freedom of one less promise made to its audience: its cast of influencers don’t have to couch their desire to appear on-screen in some other thinly veiled pretense, since being on-screen is a prerequisite of the job. Though that in turn raises the question: what exactly does an influencer stand to gain from reality television — surely a primitive mode of self-promotion compared to their native social media? If the goal is to perform on-screen for an audience, why not do that on Instagram or TikTok? These questions would ideally be answered by someone like Nathan, who is no stranger to Australian reality television, having appeared on both The Bachelorette and The Bachelor In Paradise before striking quartz with Byron Baes, or even Elias, who appeared on the first season of Love Island Australia. Though in lieu of their insights we might do well to frame the inquiry differently, and ask instead: what kind of influencer stands to gain something from reality television? To which Byron Baes answers unequivocally: one without much influence.
Let’s just quickly run the numbers: at the time of the show’s premiere, reality television veterans Elias and Nathan had the largest Instagram followings at 117,000 and 31,000 followers respectively, followed by Hannah, Sarah, and Saskia (tied at 7,000), then by Jess (5,000) and Elle (3,000) — followings comparable to that of the average teenager. Consider, too, how the bona fide Byron influencer Ruby Tuesday Matthews (223,000 followers) turned down multiple requests to appear on the show. Lest this start sounding like some post-game sports analysis, the main takeaway should be this: we are far from the superbowl of influencing, if in the professional leagues at all. What we are watching when we watch Byron Baes is akin to some regional, mid-morning tournament: a spectacle of amateur collisions and fumbles, a relentless if fruitless, naked striving.
That air of mediocrity permeates every aspect of the show. It is some of the slowest, low-stakes television that I’ve ever witnessed, perhaps no surprise for a show in which the protagonist, Sarah, agonizes that moving home would end her relationship with Nathan for good, though the Gold Coast is barely an hour’s drive from Byron. The most stimulating footage might be the drone-shots of the coast, sandwiched between similarly mellow plot lines, which the uniquely inarticulate cast struggles to summarize in their confessionals. While Hannah delivers some of the best moments of the show, she in particular speaks at a pace that must break some kind of record in the history of television, which approximates listening to a podcast on 0.5X speed. Finally, the season’s climax (if you could call it that) occurs during an art therapy session, which soon devolves into a kind of tedious, Waiting for Godot absurdism when Hannah and Elle, each accusing the other of being two-faced, ricochet the phrase “you are” between them in increasingly nonsensical intonations (as in “you are”; “you are”; “you are”), like a drama club attempting an improv exercise.
There is something endearingly earnest about the unabashed pursuit of fame, particularly when that “fame” is capped at a couple of thousand Instagram followers.
The show feels slow on a macro level, too, as if it occupies a break in the space-time continuum which lags five to seven years behind mainstream culture. Nathan’s frosted tips are a particularly flagrant case-in-point, though there are also various, well-meaning asides which take great pains to explain influencer culture, as if that culture hasn’t been ubiquitous for years: Jade, for example, makes a point of demystifying his visit to Jess’ studio, explaining that “a collaboration is where an influencer comes together with a brand.” In these moments, Byron Baes feels uncannily like something from Chris Lilley’s universe of mockumentaries, where characters actively satirize themselves. Indeed, it seemed a missed opportunity to not have Lilley play someone like Alex Reid, the talent manager who dresses exclusively in a combination of Ralph Lauren Polo shirts (because, business) paired with puka shells (because, Byron). I can’t not see Mr G. in scenes of Reid at his AirBnB-rental office, where he paces back and forth with both an iPad and iPhone in hand (because business!), spouting things in quick succession like: “Well, look, if they wanna do it, it’s gonna be expensive”; “Aw darl, they’re very 2016”; and, somewhat ironically, “Who? Never heard of them.”
These kinds of characters add to the show’s overall low-budget feel, in which the cracked veneer of spontaneity plainly reveals its underlying scriptededness. Awkward pivots in conversation hint at a producer hovering off screen, holding a cue card to prompt that scene’s confrontation. Chance encounters that seem less deus ex machina than they do convenient plot contrivances — in one, Sarah and Alex “create content” on the beach while their rivals ride horses by them; “Byron is such a small town,” Sarah complains. While everybody knows that the party is to reality television is what the colosseum was to the Romans — a necessary invention through which feuds are battled to the death — Byron Baes features a poorly attended fashion parade, a poorly attended art exhibition, and a poorly attended fundraiser. There are a number of occasions, too, when Sarah and Nathan meet for a date and, like glitchy Sims, sit around but never eat the food in front of them, only to flee the scene once some crucial revelation has been divulged. None of these details alone are egregiously offensive, but mimic the effect of noticing someone in a movie sip from an obviously empty coffee cup: they are small but distracting enough to break the thin suspension of disbelief, if one ever existed.
The curious thing about these transgressions is that they made me love the show all that much more. There is something endearingly earnest about the unabashed pursuit of fame, particularly when that “fame” is capped at a couple of thousand Instagram followers, and that pursuit involves not just one, but multiple reality television shows. My only wish is that the producers would have leaned further into these facts, the unique chaos of them: after publicly apologizing to the cast, who reportedly hated being referred to as “hot Instagrammers” and “celebrity adjacent influencers” in a press release, Netflix’s Director of Originals in Australia Que Minh Luu went on to paint them as “artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, business owners, models, on a spiritual journey and more,” the show as an exploration of the “very human need to be loved.” But this grandiosity doesn’t do the shameless mediocrity justice. It’s a quintessentially Australian struggle, after all, to be constantly overlooked. When we are acknowledged (if at all!) on the international stage, it’s rarely for good reason: horrific bushfires, continued human rights violations against asylum seekers, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trying to smuggle their dogs through quarantine. The east coast, including the Byron area, is currently inundated with historical flooding, all of which has barely made the American news cycle. That lack of attention won’t keep us from trying — and no one is trying harder than the aspiring influencers of Byron Baes.
Kim Hew-Low is an Australian writer living in Brooklyn.