The Reality Myth: life is not what it seems on unREAL

I’ve made terrible TV mistakes in the past. I once wrote a very glowing essay on this very blog after the first episode of The Affair (I still stand by my thoughts about that first episode), essentially declaring that it would likely be the next-best, must-watch, prestige drama of the season. I’ve since stopped watching the show outright, realizing that what I thought was thoughtful, smart tricks in plotting and characterization was actually, maybe just not knowing who the characters were. And that any amount of shouting couldn’t cover up not so great writing. And so I’m usually a little slow to assert my opinion about a show, I’ll wait a few episodes before saying anything one way or another. This wasn’t the case while watching Lifetime’s drama unREAL (the show originally aired last summer and I’m just catching up with it now). After watching the first two episodes I was telling anyone who would listen that the show was brilliant and unique and my favourite new thing. And then I watched the rest of the season. That’s not to say I made a mistake about unREAL – in fact, my fondness for the first season still rivals some of my favourite new shows from last year – it just proved that, in many ways like the show it skewers, it wasn’t exactly what it seemed.

(I’m giving fair warning right here, if you don’t want to know what happens in the first season of unREAL you should probably stop reading now – because A LOT happens).

But let’s backtrack a bit. unREAL is a hour-long drama set in the world of a reality TV show that is, essentially, exactly The Bachelor with a different name, in this case Everlasting. The real show was created by Marti Noxon, best known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose time as a producer on The Bachelor inspired a short film called Sequin Raze on which unREAL is based. The show partly follows the inner workings and behind-the-scenes process of making a reality show. The other part of the show (and these two things are so intertwined that it’s impossible to disconnect them) focuses on the way that the show and this highly crafted, highly stylized, undeniably fake world impacts the people who are both creating it and living in it (i.e. the game-masters and the players) and the relationships that are formed therein.

The main character and our ostensible “hero” is Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a producer on Everlasting who had a meltdown last season where she got drunk, told the “winner” that she was making a huge mistake and crashed an expensive car that was meant for the happy couple. Rachel is whip-smart, a college graduate with a degree in Women’s Studies (in the first episode she wears a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt while wrangling the contestants who are referred to always as “girls”). Rachel is conflicted about the manipulation and lying that is inherent to a job like this but she also is decidedly good at it. Appleby is fantastic in the role, letting Rachel go through a range of emotions throughout a single episode and sometimes in a single breath. She plays Rachel as emotionally and physically disheveled (at one point she is called a “wizard dressed like a homeless person” and it’s not untrue – Rachel lives in one of the work trucks on the Everlasting lot), always tired and in need of a hot shower. But Rachel is also bemused by her own power over people, delighted and horrified at the results of her manipulations. It is Rachel’s job, her sole purpose, to “produce” people to get what she and the executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), wants. And Quinn wants everything.

Quinn is a no-nonsense, master manipulator herself, with little in the way of compassion for the real lives she could be ruining. Quinn has to report to Chet, the creator of Everlasting who made a shit-ton of money off the show and now basically hangs around the set to get high with the grips. Quinn and Chet also happen to be having an affair, which complicates matters in very obvious ways (the Quinn/Chet relationship is easily the worst running plot-line in the first season). Because of Rachel’s legal issues and because of how competent she is at getting what she wants from the contestants, Quinn blackmails her to return to production. Along with Rachel, Quinn and Chet, there are some other producers and production staff that become part of the ongoing story “backstage”

Not taking a backseat to the production staff are the actual contestants on Everlasting. Adam Cromwell is our Prince Charming (or “Charmless” as Quinn calls him at one point), the “suitor” on the show and heir to the Cromwell hotel fortune. Adam’s take on the proceedings is that the show will help cleanse his reputation to a world that sees him as a bad boy and rich brat. And although, these are not untruths, Adam becomes are far more fully-formed character as the series progresses mainly due to his relationship with Rachel. Adam is thoughtful but also largely self-interested, his relationship with the various “girls” on the show is often presented as something adjacent to real. Many of the women on the show get some shading, too, like Anna the smart lawyer who deals with a personal tragedy early on in Everlasting and gives us our first insight into just what the show and its producers are capable of. Or, Faith, a gangly goofball of a woman who turns out to be wrong for the show in many ways.

If it’s not already clear unREAL is a soap. It’s funny and unusual and very, very dark but it is a soap nonetheless. Many of its plot-lines fit into the usual soap trappings like the aforementioned blackmail, constant backstabbing, and a big, giant love multi-angle. Like any soap, part of the goal is to heighten the drama at every turn. There is a moment in the first season of unREAL (and if you watch there is no missing this moment) where the show goes from a smart if somewhat silly examination of a reality show to a show where implausibility reigns. The moment hinges on the death of one of the show’s contestants. The death is a suicide but it is clear that the producers were complicit. In fact, there are so many criminal activities going on surrounding this death that, in the real world, the whole production would have been shuttered right then and there, most of the producers sent to prison. But this is TV-within-TV so the whole thing is largely forgotten about. The moment makes you question everything that has come before. Was it all this ludicrous from the start?

It’s unfortunate because there is a lot about unREAL that I love. It’s a show about women doing something, having a real kind of power in a world that they’ve largely created on their own (in the season finale Rachel fantasizes about a reality show where women live together, talk and do jobs). The fact that the power these women have and the world they live in is at best morally ambiguous and at worst involved in sexual assault and murder is as problematic and fascinating as any other show about “anti-heros” currently on TV. It’s a show that has actual discussions about feminism worked into the plot. It’s a show that takes care to make sure that almost all of the women are nuanced characters – even while Everlasting is trying its damnedest to shoehorn the girls into cookie-cutter parts like “The Bitch”, “The Wifey”, “The Slut”, etc. It’s a show that discusses an industry that I am interested in and the way that this industry can corrupt and shame and create a version of life that is impossible to latch on to, especially for its contestants. It’s a show about manipulation and lies and versions of truth that work only within the realm of the show. This manipulation is cyclical, and it keeps morphing and spinning until everyone is caught up in it in ways no one saw coming. And yet, so much of the show plays into what at first it seems to be skewering. unREAL is doing exactly what Everlasting does – trying to ratchet up the drama often for dramas sake alone. The most villainess character on the show (and it is a show full of “monsters”, as Rachel calls herself) is the insidious nature of Everlasting itself and somehow even unREAL falls under its spell.

In the end, the show smartly goes back to its real central relationship – the one between Rachel and Quinn. Is there a more complicated relationship between two women on television? There is something here that recalls the relationship between Walter White and Jessie on Breaking Bad. As much manipulating as Quinn and Rachel do to Adam and the women on Everlasting, they are doing an equal amount of manipulating to each other. The show ends with Rachel lying on her back like she does so often in the first season, telling Quinn that she loves her. Is this Stockholm syndrome? Is Rachel lying? Or, is this a kind of truth? Quinn says, “I love you too. Weirdo”. The real love story on the show, the one between Rachel and Quinn, is not romantic, it is not healthy, it might not even be friendly, but it is love. And it is this relationship that has me most excited for season two. Rachel is in a prison. She can’t get out, she doesn’t know how and in a weird way, she doesn’t really want to. Everlasting is where she’s her best worst self.

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