Unreal is vital, progressive, and riveting

unrealThis century’s high-quality American drama has been marked by the rise of not just the anti-hero, but more broadly of the morally compromised, psychologically complex lead character. The era when torment was the biggest blemish you could hope for in a series lead is over. But most of these newly multi-faceted characters have been male, as TV drama leads largely always have been. Complexity and moral ambiguity did extend to female characters but in a supporting capacity: Calamity Jane, Carmela Soprano, Peggy Olson. But we’re finally starting to see shows that put these women in the lead, and Unreal is superbly blazing the trail.

Unreal is like a dramatic version of The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-style reality TV series called Everlasting. The two principal characters are women: Rachel (the excellent Shiri Appleby), one of the producers responsible for bonding with and manipulating the female contestants, and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the executive producer and showrunner who will happily do anything to her cast and crew to generate good TV.

However, the suitor and contestants are central to the story rather than flitting on the periphery. Adam (Freddie Stroma) is a British aristocrat using the show to promote a new business venture he desperately hopes will finally impress his family. The contestants range from those seeking fame by any means to naive young idealists to older single mothers genuinely wanting to find love. Just as The Bachelor plays off this variety to generate chemistry and conflict, Unreal sets them up to demonstrate the myriad ways faux-reality TV can exploit and manipulate people and their personal lives.

But Rachel is the core of the show and drives virtually all the conflict. The pilot begins with her unexpected return to Everlasting following some kind of incident. Her internal battle with the ethics of her job and the truth that she’s very good at manipulating people spills out into her relationships, either bringing her closer to like minds or creating disaster.

Creators Marti Noxon (one of Buffy’s key writers) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (whose short film ‘Sequin Raze’ inspired Unreal) have Rachel do some reprehensible things for the show or her own self-preservation. Yet they continually pull her back from the brink of being heartless. She realises that the part of her that’s outside this lawless bubble has standards that she’s abandoning. She both loves and hates Everlasting and resents what it brings to the surface. This makes her compelling in the same contradictory way as Walter White and Tony Soprano. Take a moment to consider how rarely we’ve seen a female equivalent to those characters on television.

She’s not even the only equivalent on Unreal. Quinn is openly ruthless in her quest to make Everlasting compelling and will exploit whoever she needs to. On a lesser version of this show she’d be the primetime soap queen-bitch stereotype. But rather than a megalomaniac, Quinn is world-weary. She may be unremitting in her actions, but she’s not obsessed. This is just how people with power in this environment behave, which makes the industry the villain of Unreal rather than Quinn herself.

Besides, she’s been exploited too, both willingly and unwillingly. For years she’s had an affair with Everlasting’s hedonistic, entitled, and married creator Chet (Craig Bierko) and used that along with her own innate talent to rise through the ranks. But due to the sexism in this boy’s club industry, she struggles to get any further or command appropriate respect for her vital role in the network’s cash cow. She both perpetuates and suffers from the commodification of people – especially women – in reality television.

Noxon and Shapiro add a complicating, postmodern layer to all this. Unreal isn’t an unvarnished, grounded narrative expose with grainy footage and handheld cameras. The show behind Everlasting is ostensibly just as glossy as Everlasting itself, with beautiful people, relationship dramas, and will-they/won’t they intrigue. This could just be because it airs on US cable channel Lifetime, known more for slick but unchallenging dramas like Army Wives and Witches of East End. But it may be deliberate, as it enables the writers to subvert our expectations and challenge preconceptions about this mode of storytelling just as it more obviously attacks the competitive reality mode.

Giving examples is hard without resorting to spoilers, and given Unreal is still new it needs to be promoted as well as analysed. Let’s just say that while Rachel, Quinn, and other characters may get embroiled in tempestuous relationships, their ultimate decisions are empowering in more than a tokenistic, feel-good way. They undermine the notion that romantic or sexual relationships need ever be someone’s primary preoccupation, as it typically has for lead female characters in TV drama but not for their male counterparts.

Rachel’s unexpected statement to Quinn in the season’s final scene is a pointed repudiation of the idea that they have to be concerned with or defined by anything other than their own journeys as individuals. In their dedication to their jobs and their uneasiness with the limits they’ve gone to, they have a kinship deeper than with the men they’ve been involved with. That this connection, even if it’s over ethically dubious actions and attitudes, is presented as the most important one in the show decisively frees these characters from being defined by the men around them and from being either virtuous or evil. With Rachel and Quinn, Unreal throws down the gauntlet to television and demands the industry catch up.

What led them to this point is riveting. Some early moments are gratingly implausible (Rachel and Adam’s shared shower, for instance), but they quickly fall away. The season is exceptionally plotted, with the numerous subplots expertly coalescing in the finale. It takes great writing to make relatively low stakes compelling. The characterisation has to be rich and the interpersonal conflicts well mapped. Some of Unreal’s characters aren’t as well developed and serve more as plot devices (such as Rachel’s old flame Jeremy and his fiancee) but these flaws are forgivable when they help shape a powerful whole.

While watching, it’s hard not to wonder whether the production of these shows is as corrupt, self-serving, and exploitative as what’s on screen. Noxon and Shapiro claim that staff on reality shows have told them how accurate Unreal is, and stories have indeed emerged that correspond to what’s depicted. Past contestants have alleged producers verbally abuse them to provoke reactions and even Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss admitted that he molds contestants into characters, including villains. When an audio feed was accidentally left running, a reporter on set heard a producer coaching a contestant to fake certain emotions for the camera. Even the Australian version may be guilty, a recent report claiming contestants are sleep deprived to bolster conflict and producers try to break up friendships. Shapiro used to work on The Bachelor and no doubt witnessed much of this (if it’s true), informing Everlasting’s parade of psychological degradation.

Even if Everlasting’s methods aren’t the same as The Bachelor’s, they still effectively skewer the fakeness of competitive reality TV. To consistently generate conflict between real people on the scale needed for episodic television, the contestants must be fabricating much of it or the producers are manipulating them. Simply observing them like a sociological David Attenborough wouldn’t produce enough heat for sweeps week.

Unreal reminds us of this and that it can be to the emotional detriment and national humiliation of those participating. It prompts us to consider that these shows aren’t gently benevolent escapism, but manipulative social lab experiments that commodify human connection without saying anything remotely useful about it. Even the rare decent things Everlasting manages to achieve – such as helping shy Faith accept her identity – are done to boost ratings, despite what Rachel tries to tell herself later.

Just as the crew of Everlasting are often literally running around to expose conflict and raw vulnerability, so are we too eager to watch the trials of real people in the most artificial setting. That it’s not purely fiction is central to its appeal, and why art can’t scratch the itch for viewers that reality TV does. But when what we’re seeing is so literally engineered by people like Rachel and Quinn, even that potentially redeeming feature disappears.

Unreal is not only terrific drama and – along with Orange is the new Black – a big step forward for complex leading female characters on TV, it invigorates the debate surrounding the ethical and cultural merit of competitive reality TV. It may not have killed scripted television as some feared a decade ago, but it’s still a powerful cultural force that warrants close scrutiny.

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