Back in May, when MTV teased the name of its latest reality TV show, Siesta Key, many locals groaned. Online commenters lamented that the new show would draw additional tourists and traffic and blasted MTV for promoting Sarasota as a youthful hotspot despite its median age of 54. But what might otherwise have passed as a goofy debate about a frivolous show turned darker just days before it premiered in late July, when social media sleuths connected Alex Kompothecras, 22, the star of the program, to a viral video that showed four young men, two from prominent Manatee County families, gleefully dragging a shark behind their boat at high speed until it died.
On Instagram, Kompothecras admitted he and one of the men are friends but made it clear he didn’t condone the shark incident. (He's since closed the comments on all of his Instagram posts.) That didn’t satisfy angry activists, who denounced Kompothecras and other Siesta Key cast members and called for the cancellation of the show.
Siesta Key has been a work in progress for two years. Kompothecras’ father, Gary Kompothecras, came up with the idea after observing his son’s privileged lifestyle, which centered around parties at Gary’s enormous home built on the sands of Siesta Key. Gary made his fortune through his 1-800-ASK-GARY referral service, famous for its ubiquitous TV ads and billboards, and he gets a kick out of watching his son reap the fruits of his labor.
“Alex had a lot of friends over and I’d watch how they’d interact and go places and do stuff,” says Gary. “My son had a good life.” Good enough to film, even. Gary paid $140,000 to a production company that filmed Alex and his friends for two weeks and put together a half-hour mockup of a show that Gary then pitched to Hollywood.
It took a year, but eventually MTV called back. And beginning in April, the network started shooting 10 one-hour episodes for season one, at a cost of $4 million, according to Gary. The appeal for MTV execs was obvious: beautiful young people frolicking in a beautiful locale. Or, as Alex put it to me: “Obviously the chicks are hot and the guys are good-looking.”
The show’s story is less love triangle than love snowflake, with interlocking attractions set in motion in the show’s premiere. Alex is dating Juliette but is also maybe still into his high school sweetheart, Madisson, who might still be into him, too, but Alex also might be into Kelsey, who’s new to town, but Kelsey’s dating Garrett, while Chloe is really into Brandon, but he seems like he’s into her friend, Amanda. The show is an effective video postcard for Sarasota, with footage of lustrous sunsets and heaving fields of beach grasses, but it’s mostly fluff. Still, TV critics seemed to enjoy the first episode, with the New York Times finding the “unscripted awkwardness” of the young actors “appealing and refreshing.”
More engrossing than the onscreen drama has been the show around the show, the social media conflagration that erupted after Alex’s friendship with the man in the shark-dragging video came to light. Angry activists scoured the social media feeds of Kompothecras and other Siesta Key cast members for evidence of any infractions. It didn’t take them long to hit paydirt. Scroll the Boycott Siesta Key MTV Facebook feed, and you’ll see images that capture Alex shooting a hammerhead shark with a pistol and posing with the body, as well as drinking and driving. Also posted are videos that purport to show drug use by the cast and photos of some holding guns.
Social media justice isn’t always just. It’s hard to sort out who’s doing what in the Facebook images and whether what’s shown is illegal or unethical. But that didn’t stop protesters from judging Alex and the show guilty, at least by association. At first, MTV tried to dodge the controversy, mandating that for my interview with Alex and the show, “all questions asked must strictly be about the show.” During that interview, Alex seemed unfazed by the furor. “It’s been really sweet,” he said about the show. But a few days later, threats of protesters and even violence led organizers to cancel Siesta Key’s red carpet premiere at Sarasota’s CinéBistro.
It’s all a far cry from Gary’s original vision for the show, which he says was intended to push a “positive message” by depicting “good kids,” as opposed to other shows featuring kids with their “pants down to [their] ankles.” “Compared to what’s on TV, it’s Gone with the Wind, as far as I’m concerned,” Gary says.