What Outer Banks gets right (and wrong) about the American South
After bingeing all three seasons of Outer Banks last week, I'll admit, I get the hype (even as a millennial). It’s got everything a glossy teen drama could ask for: suspense, an international treasure hunt, family drama, and first loves. But lots of fans on social media assumed it’s all a big Hollywood exaggeration - that is, until Netflix aired its Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal documentary. In that true-life crime doc, we see teenagers driving boats around, dodgy murder-for-hire plots, and a general sense of lawlessness. But is life actually like that along the Southern coast, or is it all TV fiction? I was raised in the Carolinas, and here’s what I think the show got right (and wrong) about the American South.
Right: The general moist-ness of everything
It is hotter than hell in the South. Blazing. When my British relatives visit for “a lovely beach holiday,” they make it to day three, pouring with sweat and swatting away mosquitoes, before politely admitting that it is “a bit warm.” And so I must tip my hat to the show's hair and makeup team, who just let the humidity do its thing. From the *beachy* hair to the dewy skin and giant sweat rings, everyone on the cast looks MOIST AF, at all times, in the most authentic way possible.
Wrong: the accents
Where is the signature Southern twang? The charming, drawn-out vowels? Aside from a few adults, most of the cast are not saying “y’all” nearly enough. Accents in America aren’t necessarily linked to class the way they are in the UK; so plenty of the old money “kook” families might speak with a Southern drawl too, believe it or not.
Mostly right: the lifestyle
Aside from the fact that most teenagers involved in a murder case would be grounded for life, a lot of their shenanigans…kinda track? You can learn to drive at 15 years old in the Carolinas, and with that brings an insane amount of freedom and independence, curfew be damned. (A rite of passage at our high school was sneaking out at night, driving to the highway bridge overpass, and jumping off into the water below. My adult brain is aghast at the danger.) So the show’s reckless, adventurous, outdoorsy spirit feels nail-on-head. But boats are expensive, even the tiny old grubby ones, so teenage “pogues” might not have endless petrol money for cruising around IRL.
As the Murdaugh Murders doc accurately portrayed, many teenagers (especially those from wealthy backgrounds) do have access to family boats, jet skis, quad bikes, and vehicles. (And worryingly, also guns; but that’s a different article.) Millennials used to put “Salt Life” stickers on the back windows of their Toyota 4Runners to convey that they were a river rat, a beach bum, a surfer (albeit maybe a poser). And my classmates would periodically pull up to our school parking lot with a freshly hunted dead deer carcass in the back of their truck, prompting a call from the principal. Absolute pogue behaviour.
Kids working part-time jobs after school, like JJ and Pope do, is also the norm. (At 16, I had a job and a driver’s license, and you couldn’t tell me a damn thing.) So treasure-hunting aside, a lot of it feels accurate? Except for the whole John B living alone, dodging Child Protective Services thing. And nonchalantly being shipwrecked for weeks on end.
Wrong: Pogues vs Kooks
I asked three generations of my family on the coast, and none of us have ever heard of these nicknames - they’re Hollywood fiction. But the word everyone did mention, from my baby boomer father right on down to my Gen Z cousin, was the "preps." Which is what the show's “kooks,” aka the wealthy country club lot, would be called today in real life. As John B explains, “It's the sort of place where you either have two jobs or two houses.” While that wealth contrast is real in the South, when I think back to the house parties, tailgates, and friendship groups of my youth, people happily dated and socialised across the “class divide” wayyy more than the show suggests.
Mostly Right: the fashion
My younger cousin, who is attending high school on the Carolina coast and therefore the same age as the pogues are meant to be, thinks that the show did a pretty good job with the fashion (I’d agree). My high school crush wore a ripped bandana necklace exactly like John B’s. Stacks of beads and old friendship bracelets are de rigueur. JJ’s battered t-shirts from local marinas, work boots, and oil-stained trucker caps are spot on. As are the Columbia PFG (Performance Fishing Gear) and Vineyard Vines shirts that men of all ages wear. And the kook boys are already dressed for their frat house futures in their chinos and pastel polos. Also correct: boat shoes, leather Rainbow flip-flops, Lily Pulitzer sundresses, white jeans, and copious denim cutoffs. But in my cousin’s opinion, the women’s looks are sometimes a little more revealing than your typical young Carolina girl might wear - we're in the Bible Belt, after all. And next season definitely needs more sunglasses.
In the pilot episode, Kildare Island’s residents are cleaning up the aftermath of a destructive hurricane. They're basically really, really bad thunderstorms with destructive wind, lightning, and "storm surges.” (Which explains the boats being washed up onto land.) Many evacuate, but you’ll always see a few storm-chasers throwing “hurricane parties.”
Right and wrong: the locations
The Outer Banks are real barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, though much of the show is filmed in neighbouring South Carolina - and many OBX locals think the geography looks too different to be believable. Kildare Island is a fictional place, though it’s an amalgamation of the real-life Kill Devil Hills and Dare County (even the names sound adventurous).
Right: the set and props
Sarah Cameron’s room looks exactly like the childhood bedrooms of my wealthiest school friends, right on down to the monogrammed Yeti tumbler. (The South loves a monogram.) At one point, someone’s mum is reading a copy of Garden & Gun magazine, which is a real-life regional mag. And the houses, from the shacks on the inlet to the large plantations, are...real. (Don't believe me? Watch Southern Charm.)
Right: the backdrop of spirituality
The show has several scenes in churches, and a treasure hunt for a golden cross. North Carolina is part of America’s Bible Belt, aka the largely conservative, Republican, Protestant Christian area of the Southeast. (So the likelihood of Sarah Cameron, who probably had the fear of God instilled in her from a young age, having sex in a church is...low.) The Protestant faith intermingles with Gullah Hoodoo traditions, and a hefty dose of superstition. Many places in the South are believed to be haunted, too. I know a few people who believe they have seen the Gray Man before a storm.
Author’s note: Special thanks to my 16-year-old cousin, Sagel, for her hyper-local and Gen-Z perspective on the show. Much appreciated.
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