Over the course of Netflix’s new Australian reality series Byron Baes, about a wide-ranging group of “creatives” living comfortably in the New South Wales beach town Byron Bay, the cast describes the coastal hotspot as the following: “a surf town with hippies,” “a breeding ground for creativity,” “a postcard,” “a Mecca for influencers,” a place “built on that hippie, zen lifestyle” with “beautiful beaches” and “beautiful people.” “The energy is a total vibe and a half,” one cast member puts it quite abstractly.
The docusoap, premiering today, features plenty of these vague, rudimentary observations. Cast members present the town as an Anthropologie mood board as opposed to a place with its own rich history, culture or community outside of the wealthy, mostly white content creators who’ve made it the backdrop for their photoshoots in recent years.
This tourist perspective, which the show touts without any interrogation or much context, has already been a point of contention among Byron Bay locals for obvious reasons. When Netflix announced the show as its first Australian original title last year, some of the town’s business owners, residents, politicians, and traditional owners of the land called on the streaming giant to cancel filming over concerns that it would depict Byron in a false, superficial light. Another main worry was that the program would mask the town’s housing crisis that’s become more severe amid Hollywood projects filming there and celebrities purchasing property. In response to the uproar, Que Minh Luu, Netflix’s director of content for Australia and New Zealand, assured locals that the reality program would address “the sometimes uneasy coming together of the traditional ‘old Byron’ and the alternative ‘new.’”
The series, at least in its first season, doesn’t really deliver on that promise. Cast members mention Byron’s protective “locals” but are, of course, referring to their tight-knit group of snotty socialites. We have a cynical audience surrogate in Alex, a talent manager who loathes his crystal-hoarding, sound-bathing peers and has a radar for phonies. However, you don’t really need his incessant snarkiness to clue you in on the absurdity of the show’s ensemble.
Despite all the ethical rules Netflix is breaking or opinions its disregarding, Byron Baes seems aware of a prevalent skepticism toward a specific New-Age personality in the age of social media, often represented in pop culture as an upper-class white woman (although the cast is more diverse). This lifestyle is presented as aspirational to a certain degree, considering how gorgeous the environment is, but hardly ever authentic. Overall, it makes for a good hate-watch with an assortment of wonky characters and quasi-spiritual rituals to gawk at—not to mention the breathtaking pastoral and oceanic views.
The eight episodes follow the familiar docusoap narrative of a naive outsider entering an intimidating social circle. Sarah St. James is an aspiring singer-songwriter from the Gold Coast, which, according to other castmates, is a “trashy” haven for plastic-surgery addicts. She doesn’t look or dress all that differently from her new peers and would seemingly fit right into the Byron creative scene, if not for a conflict that becomes the conflict involving a blandly handsome, blond gentleman named Nathan who becomes her primary love interest. Likewise, their flirtation becomes complicated in ways that automatically read as scripted but unfold in an oddly compelling manner considering how low-stakes the plot feels.
As much as I enjoy the series’ spiritual predecessor Selling Sunset, I would argue that the cast of Byron Baes feels more equipped for conflict-driven reality television and capable of producing entertaining storylines over multiple seasons. Jade Kevin Foster is maybe the most ideal candidate for the genre, considering his questionable background and a perceptible desperation to fit in with the popular kids at any cost. In his introduction, he claims to be the “most followed Australian male influencer” on Instagram after Kim Kardashian posted a photo of the two of them on her page. The more he boasts about his 1.2 million followers, the more you question whether that number is even that impressive, what his definition of “influencer” is, and how he knows this statistic to be true. Luckily, we get some detective work from another cast member.
“Jade Kevin Foster is maybe the most ideal candidate for the genre, considering his questionable background and a perceptible desperation to fit in with the popular kids at any cost.”
Byron Baes’ more woo-woo personalities are practically designed for the Twitter meme mill, particularly Hannah Brauer, a brand manager who cries at the sight of rose quartz crystals but can’t accurately define a geode. There’s also Elle Watson, who you realize early on is the show’s designated antagonist and labeled the most fake-spiritual by her peers. The raven-haired humanitarian is no Christine Quinn in the gaslighting or ridiculous fashion department. However, any philanthropist who unironically has a statue built of herself as a mermaid to “help save the Coral Reef” is certainly on the right track. Simba Ali, who identifies as an “inspirer” rather than an “influencer,” appears mostly to make cacao and hold healing sessions that include fire-dancing.
Aside from Cai Leplaw, a punk photographer who’s a decidedly drama-free presence, most of the Byron influencer community seems untrustworthy even if they aren’t as outwardly rude or snobbish as Elle—like Jess Johansen-Bell, a fashion designer, who gives Jade a disgusted glare when he informs her that he, too, is from the Gold Coast before eventually befriending him. It’s a feat that the show’s personalities seemingly aren’t afraid of being seen as unlikeable. And hopefully, the avalanche of strong Twitter reactions after its premiere won’t change that.
Aside from Simba, Sarah represents a minority perspective entering a largely white space, as she informs us of her mother’s Seselwa heritage and the bullying she experienced from “blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pale Aussies.” No other cast member’s ethnicities or backgrounds are disclosed. And Byron is depicted as a progressive, racially harmonious utopia despite how often the cast alludes to the town’s exclusivity.
As much as Byron Baes is about the lifestyles certain people can afford themselves through social media, the producers understand how boring “influencing” is as a job and how tediously social-media activity is often portrayed on television. Likewise, we’re saved from watching cast members play with their phones during scenes and responding to drama occurring on Twitter or Instagram. This was a notable problem on Selling Sunset’s latest season, which included a lot of vague summaries of comments made to the press and online squabbling.
It won’t be shocking to see viewers classify Byron Baes as a satire, considering the amount of comical beats and gesturing at its own absurdity. The most delicious moments of comedy occur when a person’s perception of themselves differs so wildly from the audience’s. Likewise, there’s something deeply amusing about watching a group of people build identities around notions of uniqueness and nonconformity that clearly doesn’t exist in a community where everyone shows up to parties in the same cream-colored ensembles.
In the age of TikTok and Instagram where everyone is striving for individuality in the same, recycled ways, Byron Baes is hilarious, frustrating and, unfortunately, kind of relatable.