Panama City Beach, Florida, is a place I never want to return to. I spent most of my youth living in a small neighbourhood 25 minutes from the beach and attending Bay County schools. I remember Panama City as a small town run on nepotism, Republicanism, racism, and religion. So, I spent the better part of my time in high school figuring out how to get as far away as possible.
Imagine my surprise when, while on the train to Brooklyn one night, I saw a giant-ass poster with a girl from my hometown on it. The poster was advertising the MTV reality show Floribama Shore, filmed in… Panama City Beach, Florida. I was hit with a lot of emotions: dread, shock, incredulity, and rejection. Anyone—literally everyone—from Panama City Beach will tell you that we don’t call it “Floribama Shore.” We call it a lot of other things—Panama Shitty, Lower Alabama, the Redneck Riviera, the Bible Belt, the Panhandle, the Good Ole Boy Network—but not “Floribama Shore.”
I was prepared to keep my distance from Floribama Shore until clips from the show surfaced online. One clip in particular—a street fight—was extremely popular. From what I could tell, it looked like every other fight I’d ever seen growing up. Maybe this show about Panama City got a few things right.
So I reached out to people I haven’t spoken to in years to ask about what they thought of MTV’s approach to portraying our beachside area. Everyone—former art teachers, old drinking buddies, guidance counselors, former classmates—pretty much hated the show, to the point where they refused to watch it. A few uttered phrases: “Not relevant.” “Glorifying stupidity.” “Not something I have any interest in watching.” “I watched a single trailer and was a little disgusted and that's the last I've seen of it,” said one girl I went to high school with. Another friend called the show a “shame,” which, in the South translates directly to “a goddamn disaster.”
Other people I spoke with seemed really disappointed and confused about how MTV portrayed our town. In 2015, Panama City Beach—up to that point known for the wildest, dirtiest Spring Break in the country—banned alcohol on the beach and started enforcing strict bar and liquor laws. The county wanted fewer college kids and more families. “It’s kind of crazy how the county canceled Spring Break but let that show happen,” said Panama City resident Harry Green. “It makes the city seem wild, and Panama City isn’t like that anymore. It’s not a terrible show—it just shows Panama City in a terrible way.”
So my reviews going in weren’t too hot. I sat down, ready to catch up on season one of the show. Before even watching the first episode, I thought its title, “Eat, Pray, Party,” was incredibly accurate. In PCB, you’re either in a church or a bar, and in either case, you’re likely having some food. The debut episode introduces us to the cast, the house, and the town. The B-roll footage includes a shot of a street I once funneled a beer, chugged a half bottle of Smirnoff, and then wandered around until my friends found me and took me to a Taco Bell. Needless to say, it was weird to see this street on MTV.
The mother of Kortni Gilson—the girl I recognized on the poster—was the cheerleading coach at my high school. She's someone I heard about but never really knew. From what I heard growing up, Gilson-on-camera isn’t that much different from Gilson-off-camera, treating every situation as an opportunity to make everything worse—which I find weirdly admirable. The first thing she says in the show is, “I don’t puke,” right before downing her third shot—a lie every Panama City girl tells roughly three hours before vomiting in your bushes or on the sidewalk. In a phone conversation with Gilson, I asked her what it was like to be in PCB after the show aired. She said most people haven’t been too judgmental: “Everyone in Walmart stops and asks me for a picture.”
Candace Rice appears to be the girl who most likely has her shit together. At 24, she thinks that she’s “too old to find a man,” which sounds ridiculous—but Southern girls are taught that they’ve hit their prime by senior year of high school. Rice also always leads everyone in prayer before eating—even at restaurants, a common occurrence in PCB. (If there isn’t at least one family praying before dinner at your restaurant, the food probably isn’t that good.) Her prayers are short and cute, and she would’ve definitely been responsible for saying them if she went to the same Methodist church I attended in middle school. If there’s one thing you can’t take away from Southerners, it’s how good we are at praying.
Aimee Hall is a blond, beautiful disaster from Perdido, Alabama—which, with a population of 50 residents, is more a township than a city. She’s on the show to get over a ten-year relationship that came to an end when her then-boyfriend cheated on her with her cousin, who he subsequently impregnated. Hall is both an Alabama stereotype and an Alabama reality. She’s my favorite.
And then there’s Nilsa Prowant, who got married at 20 and divorced at 23. I feel for her in a way I feel for a lot of girls I knew growing up. I want her to find her happiness, but I want that happiness to be found very, very far away from me. Throughout the show, she proves herself to be an unreliable friend who stirs up a ton of drama. There’s one scene where some random guy (who looks like the type of guy who spends all their time fishing) calls Prowant "ma’am" and "bitch" in the same sentence. My favorite thing about the South is how a man can still consider that respectful.
The boys on the show are pretty funny. Gus Smyrnios cries a lot, learns how to properly use a fork in the first episode, and falls in and out of love just as quickly. Kirk Medas wants to relax with his friends, but is also willing to fight anyone to protect the honour of his roommates. Jeremiah Buoni is a homeschooled meathead from Jacksonville who calls himself “a gentleman and a douchebag at the same time,” because he feels like “that’s what women look for.” Codi Butts is a true chaotic neutral who usually spends his time with senior citizens, often helping his grandmother out at a group home. I like to image that Butts stirs up as much drama in the group home as he does in this beach house that no one in PCB would actually live in.
My favourite scene on the show wasn’t either of the fight scenes, but the first time the group goes to Club La Vela, which might actually be the trashiest nightclub on the planet. It’s this giant white structure right on the beach, it’s got like nine rooms in it, and everyone there is still dressed like it’s 2009.
Gilson leads the group in to Club La Vela and says she’s going to show everyone how to properly go clubbing in Panama City. The next shot is of her double-fisting frozen daiquiris with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. And she’s right, that is clubbing in Panama City. Two of the boys—Buoni, the one who won’t stop dabbing, and Smyrnios, the one who didn’t know how to use a fork—wear “back thongs” to the club. A back thong, for the uninitiated, is a long-sleeve plaid shirt cut sleeveless, with a sort of thong-shaped back. In my opinion, which Hall shared, it’s fucking awful.
By the end of episode four, there are about six arguments, two physical fights, a drama-causing Wiccan named Kayla Jo, a taco soup that gave everyone the runs, and a growing sense of unity in the house. The show is punctuated by emotional conversations and reflections on blessings, which is as much a staple of my hometown as anything else. Everyone is just trying to express themselves honestly, but no one seemed to be very good at it.
The gang fight both an old drunk white lady and a homophobic (and likely racist) man who was either in the military or wanted to be. They have fancy dinners at the places locals go after graduation and prom, and take taxis everywhere, which is certainly new to me.
Gilson told me she believes the show is giving Panama City Beach positive recognition. She acknowledged that her behaviour might be less than stellar, but said she's gotten older and more mature as time has gone on.
Watching the show made me really grateful I got out of my hometown. But it also made me appreciate the fact that people are pretty much insane disasters everywhere you go.
Floribama Shore certainly isn’t a series that puts all of Panama City on display—it left out the ugliest parts and nicest people of my hometown. But it does shed light on a small shred of truth: There’s a part of our town, and a part of ourselves, that we’re all too quick to separate ourselves from in the light of day.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.