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‘Floribama Shore’ Briefly Offered a Surprisingly Insightful Look at Race and Policing
MTV Floribama Shore—and that’s the show’s full name, lest we forget what network we’re watching—is a delightfully familiar breed of reality show. It foists Jersey Shore’s premise upon the unsuspecting denizens of Panama City Beach, a spring break resort town in the Florida panhandle, trading the older show’s fiercely proud Italian-American identity for an equally proud southern one. Snookie, Pauly D, and the Situation are replaced with Nilsa, Codi, and Jeremiah, but the familiar beats are unchanged: The series is a paean to alcoholism, steroid use, and incipient melanoma.
In the first episode, one of the cast members urinated in both a beach garbage can and her roommate’s bed. Later, when given adult diapers as a gag gift, she pees in those, too. It’s MTV gold, ridiculous in a comforting way that offers few surprises. But its last two episodes did feature something unexpected, as the frivolous orgy of sun, sand, and sangria yielded to insightful storyline about race and policing.
The show’s two black cast members are Atlanta’s Kirk Medace, who is generally easy-going but prone to drunken fits of temper, and Memphis’s Candace Rice, the house’s JWoww-like voice of reason. The other early 20-somethings joining them at the shore have personalities and biographies that read like MadLibs, from impressively jacked ex-homeschooler Jeremiah Buono, to goofy shit-stirrer Codi Butts and the sensitive romance novel cover model Gus Smyrnios. Race wasn’t much discussed on the show until last Monday’s episode, which found Kirk ejected from a club and later arrested. Kirk’s legal troubles sparked Candace and Codi to question whether he was being singled out based on his race and causing a shore house debate familiar to anyone who’s been on either side of the Black Lives Matter-Blue Lives Matter divide.
The ruckus began at a bar, where a middle-aged man from a neighboring table loudly called the women of the show “hoes.” After a brief argument that culminated in his tossing saltines at the loudmouth, Kirk was booted from the club—despite the fact that people at the opposing table were letting crackers fly, too. Outside the venue, Candace asks a police officer why Kirk was singled out for ejection. If the bouncers had seen other saltine-slingers, the cop assures her, “they would have kicked them out, too.”
“Are you sure?” asked a skeptical-looking Candace. “No, he’s not sure about it,” interjected Codi, before bringing the subtext of the conversation right to the surface. “’Cause [Kirk’s] black. That’s all it is.”
Gus, however, was completely Team Cop, clapping the officer on the shoulder and shaking his hand before vowing to get the cast off the premises. “What are you doing?” Candace asked in a confessional later. “We are roommates. You’re supposed to have your roommates’ back.”
The difference in their reactions to the police officer—Candace’s skepticism versus Gus’s friendly deference—are mirrored in national trends. Last year, 74 percent of white Americans reported warm feelings for the police, while just 30 percent of black Americans felt similarly.
For Gus, it’s all fairly simple: Kirk shouldn’t have thrown crackers if he didn’t want to be kicked out. His was a much milder variation of an argument inevitably invoked every time an incident of racialized policing hits the news. Why did Stephon Clark run from the police, if he didn’t want to be shot in his grandmother’s backyard? Why did Eric Garner illegally sell loose cigarettes, if he didn’t want to be choked to death? The Blue Lives Matter crowd favors a strange moral calculus, one utterly blind to context indifferent to any sense of proportion: Commit any infraction, no matter how minor, and black people are deserving of any punishment, no matter how severe.
The gang hopped back into their rides, with Candace and Gus in separate cars. “I love Candace,” he said, “but she makes everything about race.”
“She thinks you got kicked out because you’re black,” he told Kirk. “No,” Kirk replied, “I got kicked out because I threw crackers.”
The exchange between Kirk and Candace embodies two common paradigms of minority groups encountering bigotry. Candace tackled the issue head-on, confronting the cops and her roommates. Kirk, however, dealt with it by refusing to deal, remaining willfully unaware. The show’s first episode hinted at his racial naiveté; he said in a confessional that he likes PCB because “the whole motto is spring break, no matter what race or color, purple, black, pink, whatever you are—everyone gets along.” In invoking purple and pink people, Kirk echoed a well-known trope of colorblindness, one that, given America’s racist past and present, can only be considered sadly naive. Just as a purple person could hardly make his way through any American community unnoticed, the races of minorities are instantly registered, consciously or subconsciously, by those around us.
On the #FloribamaShore After Show, EJ Johnson is actively trying to explain to Gus that maybe as a white person he should just BELIEVE people of color when they say something might involve race, and Gus interrupts EJ and talks over him to defend himself 🙄 pic.twitter.com/ImyABBK0UJ
— eric (@MrEAnders) July 25, 2018
The night slid even further downhill from there. Outside of PCB’s Coyote Ugly, Kirk slapped a man who was heckling Jeremiah. Gus, Candace, Kirk, and Jeremiah decamped for home, sharing a tense car ride. When Kirk apologized to Gus for ruining his festivities, Gus cut him off. “I don’t want an apology from you, I want one from Candace.” He’s not angry at the friend whose messiness helped cut his night short—he’s angry at the woman who “brought race into it,” who forced him to consider what he would have been happier to ignore.
In the episode’s final moments, the police arrived at the shore house to arrest Kirk for the slap. And yes, he did slap someone—just like he did throw crackers. But this is a show that has featured multiple knock-down, drag-out brawls without an arrest in sight.
Kirk is cuffed and placed in the back of the police car, and Candace continues to advocate for him, approaching the police car repeatedly to ask if he’s okay even as the arresting officers threaten to cart her off to jail as well. Until Kirk is released with a warning, Gus and Jeremiah look on from the porch, genuinely perplexed as to why someone might be concerned for the well-being of a friend who’s in the back of a police vehicle.
By the aftershow (because 40 minutes of Floribama programming just doesn’t cut it), Gus and Candace had made up, and the cheery bonhomie that buoys the series had almost completely returned. Gus acknowledged that, in hindsight, there was “a possibility” that Kirk was being singled out based on race.
For a show that steadfastedly avoided discussing much of anything about race in S1, grappling mostly with class & masculinity, #FloribamaShore S2 deserves props for directly calling out the failures of Gus’s oh-so-white “just comply!” defense. I love how EJ is LIVING for Candace. pic.twitter.com/IRrrLz3Fzc
— eric (@MrEAnders) July 25, 2018
Candace was frank about the challenges of filming in a region nicknamed the “Redneck Riviera,” describing an experience totally at odds with Kirk’s portrayal of the area as a haven for even the purple and polka dotted. “It’s so weird, because the show is filmed in a very racially divided area of the country,” she said. “Me and Kirk have issues dealing with looks going inside the club all the time.”
The show’s thoughtful tone was short lived, and Floribama Shore quickly returned to its piss-streaked version of normal. Jeremiah bounces his pecs; Candace wins third runner up in a bar swimsuit competition. But the incident with Kirk offered a televised version of a debate more often found in online comment sections. Two people, one black and the other white, watched the exact same series of events unfold, and yet what each saw was something totally different. Even their genuine-seeming friendship and hours of discussion couldn’t entirely reconcile their perspectives. For reality TV, it was all surprisingly real.