Charleston is a polite city. It is changing, to be sure, as tourists discover its charms, retirees settle here and young professionals and entrepreneurs add mass to a burgeoning business and cultural environment.
If you watch
WHAT: "Southern Charm"
WHEN: 10 p.m. Monday
MORE INFO: bravotv.com/southern-charm
WEB EXTRA: Go to postandcourier.com on Tuesdays to read Post and Courier staffer Liz Foster's breakdown of each episode.
The past remains a tangible aspect of modern life, even as the city adapts to social and economic forces. Charleston, it is widely noted, is on the cusp of a new phase, one that presents challenges and opportunities.
Conover grew up on the shores of Delaware and once aspired to become a college basketball player. He holds a degree in finance, studies at the Charleston School of Law and serves as a clerk in a local law firm. He is also a guardian ad litem.
A South Carolinian, Eubanks has turned to real estate after a 10-year stint in the cosmetic industry. She embraces life in Charleston and likes to spend time on the beach with a good book.
King is active in the fashion world. She has designed a line of gloves and hopes to expand into sunglasses. The daughter of a retired Air Force pilot and originally from Sumter, she has lived in London, Los Angeles, New York City and Miami. Her mother is an animal rescue advocate, which has helped instill in King a passion for all creatures, especially horses.
After earning a couple of degrees and founding his own commercial real estate development company out of Atlanta, Ravenel, 51, made his way back to his hometown of Charleston in 1995. Almost 10 years later, the son of former South Carolina state senator and U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel Jr. was elected state treasurer, but got in trouble with the law in 2007 when he was indicted on federal cocaine distribution charges. He resigned from his position and served 10 months in federal prison.
Shepard "Shep" Rose
Rose, of Hilton Head, spent the majority of his adolescence and early adulthood living it up all over the South. In South Florida he worked in the resort-development business. Later he attended business school in Nashville then moved to Dubai. In 2008, he moved back to Hilton Head.
Sudler-Smith, a filmmaker, spends much of his time in L.A. He has made the indie movies "Going for Baroque," "Afternoon Delight," "Bubba and Ike" and "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston." In his free time, Whitney likes to read and play guitar.
Bravo, news reports
In that context comes the Bravo television network's new reality show "Southern Charm," which has been met with a degree of curiosity and, in some quarters, dismay and concern.
Watch for Liz Foster's reviews of Southern Charm episodes on postandcourier.com
Some locals are worried that the show presents "an out-of-date image" of the city; others have noted the lack of diversity, and still more fear that the program reinforces unhelpful stereotypes.
But one cast member, Whitney Sudler-Smith, dismissed the anxieties, insisting that "Southern Charm" extols the virtues of the city.
"The talk that the show brings Charleston down is just ridiculous," he said. "No one has anything to worry about."
The series, which debuts at 10 p.m. Monday, claims to "unlock the gates of ... centuries-old plantation homes for a real-life look at how modern-day Southern aristocracy lives," and to portray "a playground for men who never want to grow up."
"The fast-paced, drama-filled docu-series follows six Charleston singles, Craig Conover, Cameran Eubanks, Jenna King, Thomas Ravenel, Shep Rose, and Whitney Sudler-Smith, struggling with the constraints of this tight-knit, posh society," according to the show's promotional material.
Ravenel is the only Charleston native; Eubanks, King and Rose are from other parts of South Carolina. Conover was born in Delaware, graduated from the College of Charleston and attends the Charleston School of Law. Sudler-Smith, a filmmaker who spent 17 years in Los Angeles, is a son of Manhattan socialite Patricia Altschul, who bought an 1851 mansion on the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Montagu Street and moved to Charleston in 2008.
The show follows the cast as they entangle themselves in relationships ("Lust"), then other relationships ("Betrayal"), then cope with resulting conflicts ("Judgment"). They define the rules of southern gentility, then break them.
"The typical Charleston guy has PPS to the 10th degree," says Eubanks in the trailer. "Which is Peter Pan Syndrome."
Sudler-Smith, who has a house in Charleston and splits his time between the Holy City and Los Angeles, first had the idea of making a film documentary. He and a friend, actor-producer Bryan Kestner, wanted to showcase the beauty of the city and highlight the lives of a few anachronistic friends, he said.
About two years ago, Sudler-Smith shot an eight-minute title reel, showed it to his agent in L.A., who shared it with others. Haymaker, a TV production company, took on the project and pitched it to networks, settling on Bravo.
Sudler-Smith, 45, met Ravenel, 51, when the filmmaker was shooting his 2010 documentary "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston," he said.
Everyone in the cast calls Charleston home, he said.
"We will not make fun of the city at all," Sudler-Smith said, responding to early criticism. "Because we live there, we're actually proud of Charleston."
Conover said the show portrays the beauty of Charleston well, according to an article in The Coastal Point, a weekly Delaware newspaper.
"I think it's awesome that the show is finally being made in the South that shows the classier side of down here," he told The Coastal Point. "It's going to be a very accurate portrayal of how fun life is down here and show that, as much fun as your life is, you still have problems to deal with."
The poster and promotional materials present antebellum imagery - columned piazzas, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, white linen suits and mint juleps - that references Charleston's aristocratic past. An ad for the show in a New York City subway prompted one writer in the Northeast to muse over the symbolism.
"This ad is specifically racially coded in such a way that it makes pretty clear that in order to be a Southern elite - to have 'Southern charm' - you need to be white," wrote Kristin Iversen in Brooklyn Magazine.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and the NAACP's vice president of stakeholder relations, said another reality show is the last thing American television needs.
"Even more significant is, I cannot imagine anything being 'charming' about folks whose ancestors spent their lives making money at the expense of my people and other oppressed communities," Rivers said. "It may be southern, but I am pretty sure it won't be charming."
Walter Rhett, a local blogger, tour guide and historian, was more concise:
"'Reality' and 'southern charm' is a non sequitur," he wrote in an email.
The show has provoked a modest flurry of concern over just how it will portray the city.
"I haven't seen any promos or any info about 'Southern Charm,' " Mayor Joe Riley said. "If it does present an out-of-date image of Charleston, that's most unfortunate. I do think a lot of the world has gotten to know what a wonderful city Charleston is, and a beautifully restored but very much a fine, progressive city, and hopefully their view of the city of Charleston would not be affected by any television program."
Others welcome the attention, or at least don't begrudge the interest shown Charleston by various media outlets.
Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Charleston is often in the sights of the media.
"We all know Charleston is a picturesque place and a beautiful backdrop for magazine articles, books, TV shows and movies," Hill said. "We have not had anything to do with the show 'Southern Charm,' but are not surprised that a TV show would want to use our enchanting setting as its backdrop."
Most of the shooting of the show was done on private property, avoiding the need for extensive permitting. The city issued just one permit for establishing shots downtown, according to the Office of Cultural Affairs. Other shots of the cityscape were captured from the air.
Paul Roof, a professor of sociology at Charleston Southern University, said "Southern Charm" is not unlike other reality shows, judging from the promotional clips.
"(The characters) have more money, they dress nicer and we're in their backyard, or we're on their plantation or something," but otherwise the premise is the same as other shows - to appeal to viewers by promising a glimpse of other people's pleasures and scandals. "Reality TV shows have become this big segment of the market. They draw people in. We can't relate necessarily to (the cast members') wealth, but we can be entertained by their parties."
Roof once appeared in a reality show called "Whisker Wars," and said the experience was more show than reality.
"Ninety percent of the time people are getting along and having a good time," he said. "Ten percent of the time there's a little tension made to look like drama, and that's what's put out there. It may not be consequential, but it becomes consequential - it's manufactured for ratings."
Indeed, the "reality" label is too liberally applied, according to Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston.
"Reality shows are anything but real," Bakanic said. "People are paid to portray stereotypes, and events are scripted. Stereotypes are inaccurate to begin with, but made more so by the directors and writers. They exaggerate some of the worst qualities of the groups they depict."
Roof said reality shows tend to mirror larger social and economic trends.
"When the economy was booming, you had all these real estate shows," he said. "Now we're on to lifestyle shows," such as "Basketball Wives," "Pawn Stars" and "Welcome to Myrtle Manor," a Myrtle Beach-based reality show that began last year and points the camera at people on the other end of the economic scale - trailer-park residents.
And now it's classy, magnolia- and jasmine-scented Charleston that has captured the imagination of a growing number of people.
"The idea of the South, whether or not it's fake, has sort of become chic," Roof said.
That reputation has been fueled by national publications, a spate of restaurant and hospitality awards and glowing stories in travel magazines, including Conde Nast Traveler's designation at the No. 1 city in the U.S. for three consecutive years.
"People start to pay more attention," he said. "When a place is No. 1, that means everyone wants a piece of it."
Sudler-Smith, who prefers the label "docu- series" over "reality show," said the show is about a group of friends and their misadventures.
"I was a little surprised going into it," he said. "They put cameras on you, and after a while you forget they're there." Sometimes the cameras capture the cast having fun, sometimes the action is banal. "But it's all true; there is not a script, which makes it interesting."
He said concerns about issues of race were never brought up, since the show's focus is on a real group of friends.
"There are not a lot of histrionics," Sudler-Smith said. There's some immature behavior, drinking, that sort of thing. "It's a little of 'Downton Abbey' and a lot of 'Animal House.'"