Why you should be watching UnREAL on Amazon Prime Video
Schlocky, soapy entertainment value10
Thought provoking analysis of how patriarchy works10
Appalling characters played to perfection10
Helen Archer | On 19, Jun 2016
There is something very fitting about the fact that it was Lifetime which picked up the darkly brilliant drama UnREAL last year. The natural home of the kind of output popular with predominately female viewers – from TV movies that pit women against women through to the structured reality of the Real Housewives franchise – stumbling across UnREAL on the channel must have been like biting into a shiny red apple infested by maggots; it is the black fly in Lisa Vanderpump’s chardonnay.
The series was created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a Sarah Lawrence-educated creative who went to LA to make feminist films, and ended up contractually obliged to produce The Bachelor. Sticking it out for three years – during which time she found that she excelled at the kind of Machiavellian behaviour required to be a successful reality TV producer – she was finally released from her in perpetuity contract only after threatening suicide.
Although everyone is at pains to point out that UnREAL is a fiction, it nevertheless clearly draws heavily on Shapiro’s experience. Pitched to Lifetime as “a feminist working on The Bachelor has a nervous breakdown”, the series introduces us to Rachel (Shiri Appleby), who, due to financial difficulties, is forced to return to her job at Everlasting – a reality TV show in which show ponies in sequinned ball gowns compete for the dubious prize of the hand in marriage of the ‘Suitor’ – after a very public on-set meltdown during the finale of the previous series, some footage of which survives and is passed around by colleagues.
Rachel, in her ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, is a clearly conflicted character, a female anti-hero. Taking a certain pride in how excellent she is at her job, which involves high-end manipulation, she is nonetheless aware that the way in which her special puppet-master skills are employed is morally bankrupt. Along with fellow producers, and watched over from a control room with banks of screens by boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer), she creates the kind of female characters which are the staple of reality TV, from the naïve virgin to the gold-digger to the grounded single mother; or, as the post-it notes stuck on the photos on the production whiteboard more succinctly put it, “wifey”, “Crazy”, and “desperate MILF”. From behind the cameras, where the only thing that matter are the ratings, contestants are manipulated in order to provoke specific reactions, be they sad tears or furious outbursts, fights or reconciliations (but mainly fights).
Competitiveness is rife. Each producer has their own charge, women they are responsible for and whom they pretend to befriend in order to exploit. Once the last of their ‘girls’ is sent home, their producer, too, is cut, surplus to requirements, and must walk away from the show and the pay-check. There are financial bonuses for the producers who can create the bitchiest on-screen behaviour. So, while ‘feminist’ Rachel colludes in misogyny (“sluts get cut”), her black crew mate colludes in racism, by setting up one of his contestants as the angry Black woman (a persistent and infuriating reality TV trope). “It’s not my fault that America’s racist,” says Quinn, with her typical disingenuousness tinged with cynicism.
Like the contestants, the crew are isolated from their family and friends, living, eating and breathing the show. When Rachel manages to get some sleep, it is in the back of an equipment van; much like a doctor in the ER, her pager can go at any time of day or night, and she must be ready at a moment’s notice to scrape her hair into a messy topknot, pull on some dirty jeans, and head into the luxury villa to create chaos.
The sleight of hand that the programme pulls off is that – unlike in the reality TV show it so effectively demolishes – the contestants do not so easily fit into the stereotype trap laid out for them. They are seen to be rounded, complicated characters with their own distinct problems – they are dealing with everything from depression, to abusive exes, eating disorders and sexual assaults. Each issue, when it inevitably becomes public knowledge, is ruthlessly exploited at the contestant’s expense. Ultimately, as the women discover, Everlasting is a battle of wits, and it is up to those in front of the cameras to outsmart those behind.
Yet as the series goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the producers, despite appearances the contrary, have no real control; they are at the mercy of the execs, and layer upon layer of the power structure is gradually revealed. Quinn, though a God on set, feared and worshipped in equal measure, nonetheless has to take second place to her coke-snorting trainwreck of a boss, Chet (Craig Bierko), whom she also happens to be screwing. At the round-tables of male TV execs, Quinn is ignored and overlooked until she gets Chet’s approval; although it is the women running the show, garnering the ratings, the men take both the credit and the money. Quinn and Rachel are no more in charge than the contestants whose lives they destroy as sport – they, too, are mere cogs in a misogynistic wheel that powers a relentless patriarchal machine. For the women on the crew, like the contestants, the game is rigged.
The programme also asks questions of the viewers of structured reality shows like The Bachelor, with its throwback sexual politics. The complicated relationship many audiences have with structured reality, the ironic distance we cultivate in order to consume it, is mirrored back to us. UnREAL raises questions about the effect the manufacturing of a regressive type of femininity has on societal norms, and highlights the myriad ways in which women – knowingly and unknowingly – collude in their own oppression.
It’s quite an achievement to raise such issues under the guise of such an addictive, entertaining, pitch-black series – the show’s fiction is more ‘real’ than the ‘reality’ show it portrays. Season 2’s episodes are being screened weekly on Amazon Prime Video, and feature a black Suitor – something in its 20 seasons the real Bachelor has never done. Vying for his hand are, among others, a Black Lives Matter activist and a woman who wears a confederate flag bikini. Expect fireworks. Just not the fairytale-ending kind.
Season 1 and 2 of UnREAL are available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.