After months of speculation and vocal criticism of the very concept of a reality television show set on Martha’s Vineyard, the ABC Family docu-soap The Vineyard premiered Tuesday night. While several cast members made appearances on national entertainment shows and tweeted live, cast member and Island resident Cat Todd sat at the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company surrounded by friends and waited for the show to air.
“It all seemed really surreal until now,” she said. “I feel like it was just a summer activity and now it’s here.”
At 10 p.m. a sweeping aerial shot of the Gay Head lighthouse flashed across television screens as cast member Katie Tardif’s voiceover set the scene: “Martha’s Vineyard. For nine months out of the year it’s a sleepy Island paradise where sand and surf softly collide. But that’s not all that collides, because from June to August the Vineyard comes alive.” Cut to the iconic bridge jumping shot along State Beach.
The Vineyard aims to tell the story of seven women and four men in their late teens to mid-20s who spend a summer on the Island working at the Black Dog and living together in a house on East Chop Drive in Oak Bluffs.
The majority of the cast members are considered “washashores,” a term that describes those not born and raised on the Island. Ms. Todd is one of two Islanders featured in the primary cast of the show, which was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard in May and June. “Our story is probably the most real,” said Ms. Todd’s mother, Christine Todd, who also appears on the show.
Ben Rossi is the other Vineyard resident featured. “It was cool to have another Islander on the show to lean on,” said Ms. Todd. She and Mr. Rossi knew each other before being cast in the show.
While many cast members were contacted through their agents, former Vineyard residents who now live in Los Angeles found Ms. Todd through Facebook and heavily recruited her. She said she initially had little interest. It wasn’t until she met the producers on the Island in April and subsequently flew to Los Angeles for a screen test that she decided to do the show, she said.
Cast member Jackie Lyons, who has been visiting the Island since she was an infant, watched the broadcast along with other cast members and production staff at a private screening party at creator and executive producer Dave Broome’s house in Los Angeles. She stayed in contact with family and friends via Twitter. “Everyone that I talked to was loving it,” Ms. Lyons said. “I was very proud.”
Because of her history and family ties to the Island, Ms. Lyons said that when she heard about the show she was compelled to be a part of it. “I love the Island and the Vineyard so much. I wanted to make sure that everything was represented the way it really is,” she said. “Everything that happened on the show was just like every other summer on the Vineyard.”
While much of the docu-soap was scripted, some story lines are true to life. In Tuesday night’s premiere episode, Ms. Lyons and her mother, a year-round resident who is battling an illness, sit down for breakfast. “So, Mom, do you want me to pick up any prescriptions or help you with anything?” she asked.
Having the opportunity to share the experience with her mother was especially meaningful for Ms. Lyons. “Throughout the season you’ll get to see that she is my best friend,” she said. “She is an amazing woman.” Ms. Lyons plans to return to the Island to spend more time with her mother, and in the spirit of life imitating art, decide what her next steps are.
The first episode also showed a heated discussion between Ms. Todd and her mother, based on actual events.
“The hardest part of doing the show was filming with my mom,” she said. “Everything that we did together was so emotional.”
“The way we portray ourselves on the show is 100 per cent us,” said Mr. Rossi in an interview Thursday. “I play myself in the whole show, it’s all me.” As an Islander, he said he had the opportunity to give his suggestions and ideas to make it more realistic. “I think it’s going to be a positive thing for the Island,” he said.
Back at the Chowder Company, people sat at the bar and watched the premiere screening. Reaction was similar: most agreed that the cinematography, which featured aerial shots of Vineyard landmarks, was beautiful, while the Black Dog, a major presence in the show, was overexposed. Characterization of Islanders was wildly inaccurate, many viewers said.
“Nationally they’re going to love it,” said Warren Gosson of Oak Bluffs. “Locally, no.”
Word began to spread in February that a reality show would be filmed here, and Vineyarders were immediately concerned about how the Island would be portrayed. Negative comments flooded a Facebook page for the show, as well as a story published on the Vineyard Gazette website.
Producers assured residents that they planned to respect and honor the Island.
Cast and crew were seen filming at locations across the Island for more than six weeks from late May into July.
“We try to be as small a footprint as possible. You maybe saw two or three vans and realized we were a TV show filming there, but only because of the cameras,” Mr. Broome told the Gazette earlier this month.
And while some opposed the filming of the show, others supported it for its potential economic impact.
“If it brings people to the Black Dog, brings people to my place, brings people to the Vineyard, it’s good for everybody,” said Troy Neuenberg, general manager of the Sand Bar and Grille in Oak Bluffs. “It’s a good brochure for the Island.”
The day after the show aired, Ms. Todd said she had been hearing a lot of criticism from Islanders.
“All I’ve been hearing is that it’s a misrepresentation of the Island,” she said. “But there’s no changing their minds and you just have to go with it. It’s just a TV show, it’s for teenagers.”
Viewer critiques flooded social media following the broadcast and reviews that appeared in entertainment media on Wednesday were largely negative. But Ms. Lyons was unruffled by it all.
“A lot of the issues people are commenting on are going to change — you just have to stick with it,” she said. “Everyone has a different experience on the Island. Islanders may not see it as their experience on the Island, but it was mine to a T.”
Ms. Todd agreed. “It’s the first episode, you’ve got to hang in there. After you see the whole thing, if you want to hate on it, that’s okay.”
Mr. Rossi said he didn’t read the reviews. “I choose to stay away from reading all the comments,” he said. “I don’t believe anyone gets portrayed badly . . . just not how they would want to be portrayed.”
The night of the screening some found positive reaction.
“It’s very nice other than that it’s not life on the Vineyard,” said Oak Bluffs resident Tilma Zyla, who was having sushi while watching the premiere at the Sand Bar and Grille. “Other than that, it’s nicely plotted.”
According to Nielsen ratings, Tuesday night viewers of the premiere were mostly female. Numbers reported to the Gazette on Thursday showed that the 10 p.m. premiere averaged 735,000 viewers: 624,000 female and 111,000 male. While nearly a quarter of a million viewers sounds like a lot for an Island of about 16,000 year round residents, by television standards the number is low.
That said, Mr. Rossi remained optimistic. “I’m hoping for season two,” he said. “The way things are going now, it seems right on track.”
Concluded Mr. Broome in the July interview: “We wanted to really be respectful, make friends and leave there on great terms and hopefully be welcomed back. Now it’s up to us to have a hit show.”
The Vineyard airs every Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC Family.
Go behind the scenes with full coverage of The Vineyard, including galleries and interviews.