I watch a lot of TV but it’s rare that something comes along that appeals to my very specific interests and tastes. So here’s a piece on one such show, with more Watch Its to come.
The ever evolving landscape of American television has seen networks previously unknown or dismissed as fluff fodder reinvent themselves as makers of critically acclaimed programming. Starz has dragged itself into legitimacy thanks to the overwhelming success of Outlander, with American Gods on the horizon, while Salem and Manhattan have reminded viewers that WGN is a real channel. Now, Lifetime has stepped up to the fold with an unexpected delight that manages to be both a contradiction of its public image and a perfect fit for the network.
UnREAL is a gloriously acidic experience that combines brutally sharp satire with one of the most precise and refreshing takes on that surprisingly rare TV phenomenon – the female anti-hero. Set in the world of reality TV, the show follows the making of a Bachelor style dating show called Everlasting. All the recognisable tropes are there – the MILF, the bitch, the virgin, the villain – but, of course, they’re not organic. Behind the scenes, driven and bluntly honest executive Quinn (Constance Zimmer) moulds the narrative she needs to make good TV, while her troubled producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is tasked with manipulating the contestants to help make it happen. Rachel, who has returned to the show after a breakdown on the previous season, struggles with the amoral nature of her job, made all the worse by the fact that she happens to be excellent at it.
While UnREAL initially seems at odds with the more earnest, soapy programming we usually associate with Lifetime, the show is proudly melodramatic, even as it descends into uncomfortable darkness. Quinn makes no bones about the reality of her work and the callousness it requires. She bluntly tells the show’s two black contestants that neither of them will win so if they want to stand out then one needs to be the villain. One contestant, cruelly categorised as the MILF joke, suffers from severe mental problems, which Quinn admits is the reason she was cast. Zimmer offers an unapologetically nasty performance, one that’s big but never entirely dominates the action.
The audience’s point of view comes from Rachel, who is introduced to us lying on the floor of a limousine, surrounded by glamourous women drinking champagne, while she is clad in a This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt. She remains sympathetic, although the real joy in Appleby’s performance comes in watching her crumbling state of mind as she digs the metaphorical knife into the unsuspecting contestants in order to get the action shots they need. Rachel knows she’s good at what she does. She may be the best in the business, but every take she manages chips away a little more at her soul. Every day, she is complicit in an exploitative system that is killing yet, yet we as the audience remain thrilled by it.
UnREAL’s true skill lies in the examination of the roles women are forced into, both on television and in real life. A Spelman College graduate and Supreme Court clerk is offered the role of ‘villain’ based solely on her race. An older woman with major insecurities most function as the butt of the joke because of her age. A naïve Southern rodeo queen is brought onto the show because she’s a virgin. Everlasting has no desire to allow these women to be multi-faceted human beings. Fortunately, UnREAL does, and it offers a scathing meta-critique of the industry and society at large.
UnREAL is a pitch-black satire soap opera that offers some of the most interesting and morally conflicted female characters on television. It’s not the Bachelor expose some have painted it as (partly thanks to the show-runner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s past work on the show), but it does offer the most cutting examination of the toxicity of a narrowly defined set of roles for women while reminding us all that the women set up for our gloating amusement are so much more than that.