TV fatigue: it’s real. There is too much good television that it becomes overwhelming to choose a show, because no one can possibly watch everything. We become paralyzed with indecision and no one wants to give their time to a creative flop (ahem, True Detective season 2) or miss out on a prestigious (if less popular and buzzy) drama like The Americans.
The weightiness of TV, how smart and well-written and acted it consistently can be, hasn’t made people turn away from “trashy” reality TV (you know the kind – if there’s a camera in every room of the house, it’s trashy). If anything it’s made spending an hour (with commercials) on something frivolous and dumb, a “hate watch,” more enjoyable. It’s a donut after the gym. Choosing to watch something dumb is a socially acceptable vice.
Well UnREAL, on Lifetime (yes, Lifetime!) is the first show I’ve seen that scratches that “this is so bad it’s good” itch, while actually being a good show. The premise is simple: it’s a fictional, behind-the-scenes look at a show called “Everlasting.” It’s obviously a take on The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, and it’s not being shy about that. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the executive producer of UnREAL, worked as a producer on The Bachelor. Everlasting also features elimination dating, overnighters, hometown visits, and an end-of-season proposal. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
The protagonist, Rachel (the fantastic and bed-headed Shiri Appleby) starts the season coming back to work after an extended nervous breakdown and mysterious “time away”— she claimed that the constant manipulation and stress of her job pushed her over the edge. Her life is a mess: groveling for a job she hates, finding out her ex Jeremy (a cameraman) is now engaged, broke and homeless and living in one of the show’s trailers, she’s hit rock bottom. Rachel’s job is to “produce” (which the show throws around as a verb) the cast for optimal results (crying, freak outs, humiliation, fighting). It’s a gut-wrenching, amoral job, and it would be easy for Rachel to say “but somebody’s got to do it,” but the thing that makes Rachel interesting is that she doesn’t just do it – she is excellent at it. She can –and does- make grown ass professional women turn into hysterical reality show girls. We don’t know why Rachel can look people dead in the eye and convince them to do anything, but partway through the season we are introduced to her mother, a therapist who badly wants to diagnose and medicate her daughter, despite Rachel’s resistance. It’s clearly connected.
Rachel has the kind of energy that makes people gravitate towards her, a bit of a wounded bird syndrome. It draws in her ex, piques the interest of the show’s bachelor Adam and keeps hellish and bitingly smart EP and de facto showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmerman) coming back for more. All of these toxic relationships play into one another; Quinn is Rachel’s most cutting critic and her biggest ally, but isn’t above blackmailing her with a sex tape. On-again, off-again Jeremy is there as a sort of escape hatch, but at the end of the season the writers seem to be setting him up for a much bigger role. And the Brit, Adam, as an actor, he had a not-easy job: play the reality TV guy, and play the reality TV guy in real life. Towards the end of the season, he came into his own, particularly when his self-interest (for a spin-off and fake wedding) collided with his promise to run away to Europe with Rachel.
The relationships are so compelling because it’s hard to discern what actually is real – Everlasting is clearly fake and contrived, but the moving parts around it aren’t. The people behind the manufactured love are real. Rachel having a teary breakdown to Adam, only to claim she was faking it for the show – was she? Quinn and Rachel bouncing ideas off one another for a more feminist version of Everlasting – one that promises not just a man but also a career – is that true camaraderie? Can a friendship be built on mistrust and deception and manipulation? Their scenes together are the show’s most exciting, and their relationships with other women – we’re pushing you to greatness because we know you can take it! – is a study in predatory feminism. We’re all in this together, until we’re not.
Quinn’s particular take on an assistant who fellates her fiancé – it’s not your fault, he’s in a position of power, that is harassment, file a lawsuit – would be sympathetic and admirable if it wasn’t part of her play for her own show. Everyone involved in Everlasting has an endgame, but the motivations change so quickly that you never get too comfortable being on someone’s side. (And here I have to mention the fiancé and Everlasting creator and EP, Chet, who enjoys his hookers and blow with zest– he adds a lot of humour and energy to the scenes. He actually stole the idea for Everlasting from Quinn and her then-boyfriend, but it’s all good, because he’s a cokehead with a heart of gold.)
The cast of a show-within-a-show is definitely big but in this case it’s not hard to keep track of people. Besides the many producers and crew members who make up UnREAL, there’re also contestants that make up Everlasting. Next season, I’d love if they really explored why anyone would go on a reality show that deals in fauxmance. Of course many do it for quick fame – they want to start a clothing line or kickstart a music career. But there were some that seemed to actually be into the idea of meeting someone – on a reality show! Smart, accomplished women who succumb to trickery and humiliation for a shot at a guy who really just wants to be famous. Along the way, pardon me, “journey,” the madness and isolation really does make regular people flip their lid, and I think UnREAL does an excellent job of explaining how, with the right amount of pressure, people can be cajoled into doing things they swore they would never do.
There’s been a lot of talk about one big moment on UnREAL, which I won’t spoil except to say that when you think the writers (of the real show, not the fake one) will pull back on a storyline, they don’t. They go for it, and it is messy. You think it’s been neatly dealt with but it bubbles up again in the season finale. The show can go any which way in season 2 – it can turn into a crime drama or a romance or keep being a scathing indictment on what we value in entertainment. Yes, we. Because UnREAL is ultimately about what it takes to make the kind of reality TV that draws in millions of viewers, lands magazine covers and takes over social media.
Quinn and Rachel may make the basest form of entertainment, but they do it for a very large, and largely female, audience. They (the producers and the cast) know what we want – the stereotypes: mascara running down faces, catfights, and central casting country bumpkin’ Southerners, angry women of color, sexpot Latinas and dim-witted blondes. They deliver, and show us that in such a controlled environment, people can be convinced that playing into a stereotype is empowering and that they, the ones that “get it,” are actually using the audience and show to get what they want. If you’ve ever wondered why someone cries and fights for someone they don’t even know, well, UnREAL takes some of the mystery out of that behavior.
The reality TV tropes work, as we’ve seen countless times from the success of these shows. But audiences have become desensitized — bringing back “the villain” just won’t cut it anymore. There is always a demand to produce more crazy, more fighting, more hair pulling, more drunken weeping. And everyone – audience and producers – gets a pass on encouraging and getting off on the humiliation because, as it’s said many times on UnREAL, these women signed up for it. We are all in this together, sadist and masochists.
Season one ends with Everlasting all wrapped up – the “most dramatic season ever” – and Quinn getting the upper hand again on lovable louse Chet and a possible network deal. Adam seems to be banished to post-reality TV life, Jeremy is either seeking revenge on Rachel or trying to help her in the worst way possible, and Rachel – we have no idea where Rachel is at mentally. Her last scene, a loaded conversation with Quinn, was disquieting but invigorating. She’s a wild card.
It’s one season, 10 episodes. It’s not too much homework and I promise that it will be fun. And a good guilty pleasure, minus the guilt. If that isn’t enough to convince you to watch it, I’m sure you’ve heard that Chris Harrison, the host from The Bachelor, is all pissy about UnREAL. I think he’s mad because the host of Everlasting is a spray-tanned dud with zero impact on the show. So Chris has been trash talking UnREAL’s ratings. Wouldn’t you love to prove that talking penis (he literally looks like a penis!) wrong?
UnREAL is available on iTunes.