Unreal is a gripping and brutal satire of reality TV but it is much more than that. While this might sound like a drama about a trivial subject, the content of Unreal makes it one of the most serious and important TV series of recent years. It follows two female producers as they make a romance-themed reality show, highlighting the degree to which they’re willing to manipulate the contestants in order to produce ‘good TV’. The psychological and moral impact of this on the production crew – particularly the junior producer Rachel – is quite awful, and she rebounds between depression and megalomania as a result. This week we take a deeper look at this series, examining its commentary on what constitutes ‘entertaiment’ and how that is made, through its complex politics of gender and race to the constant use and subversion of stereotypes.
Unreal is an American TV drama about the making of a reality TV show. We watch as the producers manipulate the contestants to create drama and stories that can be sold to the public. The format for the show, called Everlasting, is essentially a dating game, with one male ‘suitor’ choosing between around 25 women with regular ‘elimination ceremonies’ that whittle down the numbers. So both the suitor and the women have to manipulated to generate the desired results – not just in terms of week to week dramas and scandals but also in terms of the overall trajectory and impact of the whole season.
I am very impressed by Unreal, I think it’s very funny, the humour is usually black comedy and quite cynical satire of the entertainment industry, which certainly appeals to me when it comes to reality TV. But herein lies the irony – in depicting these producers as morally corrupt schemers the makers of Unreal have made a very entertaining piece of TV. There are two sets of storylines within the programme – the story within the reality TV show Everlasting and the story of the producers and executives who make and sell it. Both are a lot of fun to watch, far more so than any reality TV dating game show could ever be.
I also think it’s important for people to realise how these reality shows are made, and that in some cases they are very well made by very intelligent and talented people. There’s a lot of power in editing, and quite a lot of people realise this. You can take five little snippets and create a small story out of a series of events that were more complex and subtle. Whether it’s a conversation between two people on Big Brother or someone auditioning for Strictly Come X Factor in the Jungle on Ice, the editor has a lot of control.
But what Unreal shows you is how things are shaped and ‘produced’ from the very beginning, with the selection of the suitor and the contestants and how they are coaxed and provoked into doing and saying things to make ‘good TV’. This process has garnered far less attention, because it’s like a magician showing you how he does his tricks. The magic of the entertainment industry is that you don’t see the countless hours of preparation and creation that go into the hour or two that you end up watching. Unreal tears all that down with gusto and it is delightful to watch.
The story centres around the showrunner Quinn and her number two Rachel. Straightaway this is a little unusual – I cannot think of any ‘behind the scenes’ story with two female leads. A male and a female, maybe – Faye Dunaway in Network springs to mind – but never two women. I’m familiar with both of these actresses – Constance Zimmer as Quinn and Shiri Appleby as Rachel – from other films and TV series but I’ve never seen either give such a great performance as they both do here. Part of the reason is that Unreal was created by two women – Marti Noxon who is a long time TV screenwriter and Sarah Shapiro, who is a former producer of The Bachelor, the basis for Everlasting, and the filmmaker behind an award-winning short film Sequin Raze, which was the inspiration for Unreal.
Back to our protagonists – Quinn is in her 40s, having produced 13 seasons of Everlasting and starting the 14th in season 1. She is very tough, ruthlessly intelligent, ambitious and very unpleasant to her staff. Rachel is somewhat more sympathetic, as we see from the off that she’s a little crazy and clearly has some deeply rooted emotional problems which we later find out originate in a horrific upbringing. However, this has helped Rachel gain an incredible ability to understand people – what makes them tick, how to get them to do what you want, how to manipulate them. Like Quinn she is very intelligent and quite unpleasant, but she is more sympathetic as we quickly see that Quinn is manipulating her and has trapped her within this world for Quinn’s benefit. After all, Rachel is brilliant at her job, it’s just her job is horrible and it’s ruining her life. A familiar story, and hence a sympathetic one.
Indeed, the whole thing is a delicious scheming bitch fest – Quinn refers to them as scheming bitches and takes delight in being one, so this is very much a story of anti-heroes. Again, one female anti-hero has been done before but two, and two such unrepentant, two-faced hack bitches from hell, I’m not sure we’ve seen. Quinn manipulates Rachel and the other producers who in turn manipulate the suitor and the contestants, which in turn manipulates the audience, which creates ratings and results in the network executives renewing Everlasting for more seasons. I know this might sound absolutely horrible and at some moments it is but because we follow Rachel and see the effect this has on her in terms of driving her depression it’s actually very gripping and quite cathartic to watch.
I’m not going to fully break down the two seasons so far but there are spoilers ahead. One thing the show does especially well is to contrast the brightly lit but entirely fake world of Everlasting with the dark and dingy reality of the production room where Quinn barks orders and random abuse into her walkie-talkie. This is often very funny, both in terms of breaking up the superficiality of the scenes of the dating games and nonsense but also the other way. There are numerous moments when a really shocking or vicious bit of behind the scenes discussion is followed by a scene of Graham, the fake-tanned slick voiced presenter of Everlasting doing one of his ridiculous pieces to camera introducing the next segment.
To give you an impression of what Unreal is like there’s a clip I want to play from the very first episode because it sets the tone and introduces a lot of ideas that I want to highlight for you. This is when the female contestants are first being introduced to the suitor – Adam, a 29 year old British hotel heir from an aristocratic family. We then get the start of the party which makes up most of the first episode of Everlasting and we see the producers creating drama and storylines and stereotypes.
(15:25 – 25:30)
Hopefully this gives you a flavour of what to expect from Unreal – it does not pull punches or compromise in its gruesome depiction of producing reality TV. They treat the contestants as pawns in the game, but ultimately even the producers are pawns and, as it all progresses, we see that Quinn is too.
The Politics of Unreal
On top of everything else that’s going on, Unreal is a quite obviously political show. While some would see this story of two women dominating Everlasting as a feminist narrative – and it is – it is also a gritty and at times vicious attack on the supposedly liberal credentials of the American entertainment industry. Rachel is a progressive young Jewish woman and indeed most of the producers are women, with the exception of one gay black guy. So on the surface they’re a bunch of liberals pursuing their liberal agenda. Everlasting is superficially a patriarchal show where one man chooses from a whole brothel of women which one deserves his affections. But he too is being manipulated by the women who are really running things, he isn’t really making the choices a lot of the time.
However, it is also a story of women destroying other women to get ahead. Rachel says liberal feminist things but at quite a few moments other members of the crew point out her hypocrisy. Plus she is destroying herself, making her life deeply unhappy and doing nasty stuff most of the time. This personal dishonesty within Rachel is a metaphor for the entire industry, where people pay lip service to feminism and gay rights and do adverts for anti-racism charities but then go and make war films with the Pentagon. Even aside from the government propaganda, the entertainment industry in general isn’t the liberal place it pretends to be. It uses people, feeds up stereotypes that appeal to people’s most basic emotions, is salaciously violent, objectifies women and men, but women more frequently and obviously – I could go on.
This satire is taken to an amusing extreme when at the start of season two Quinn and Rachel get matching tattoos saying ‘money dick power’. It is things like this that make me wonder if in satirising the shallow fake-feminists in the entertainment industry the writers of Unreal are also trying to piss off the mens rights crowd. Meninists will probably hate this programme, though they might take pleasure in watching it conform to their ideas of how the world works. Two man-hating bitch sluts running things from a shadowy office could be quite enticing to people like that, so I’m guessing the writers are playing a bit of a prank with some of this stuff.
However, ultimately there is an important metaphor here about people running things from behind closed doors. We, the audience watching Everlasting, are absorbed by the melodrama but this is the theatrical product of people who are knowingly manipulating us. But at the same time there is no overt political agenda, or not a remotely consistent one, and there are a lot of power struggles and conflicts between the manipulators. So what we the public are seeing is the product not just of theatrics and fabrication, but also the infighting amongst those inside the circle of knowledge. If that isn’t a metaphor for our political reality then I don’t know what is.
A common phrase that Quinn uses is ‘they know what they signed up for’, until one of the producers confronts her at the end of season one and points out that they have no idea. This is the producer who, upon finding out that Mary (the older woman in the clip) is on powerful mood stabilisers decides to switch them out for placebos. I won’t ruin what the outcome of that, but it’s really not good. In fact, it’s brutally sad. So this is a metaphor for our quasi-democratic society. We get to vote, but they’ll spy on everyone. We sign up for something to some extent but we’re not really aware of what we’re signing up for.
This is emphasised when in the second season there’s a public vote to pick two of the girls, and the suitor picks which one he wants to take for an ‘overnight date’ i.e. a boning session. Graham, while sliding into a hot tub with several of the women, explains that they can call, text, tweet and snapchat their votes. Later it is revealed that Quinn actually just picks the two girls and she tells Rachel that she doesn’t even know where that phone number goes. This is one of those moments where I think they are quite obviously crossing over into political commentary and not just satirising the world of reality TV production.
Stereotypes in Unreal
The use of stereotypes in Unreal is unusual and creative. Most prominently, the Jewish feminist stereotype, which they completely subvert and play with in ludicrous fashion. Rachel is gradually revealed to not be some man-hating progressive-minded manipulative bitch but is in reality an emotionally damaged young women who deep down just wants to be loved. She rebounds between different men across the two seasons but this isn’t because she’s a slut who sees men as disposable interests but because too many men keep falling in love with her. While she does some terrible things she often makes decisions where she is simply trying to do the right thing rather than live up to the demands and expectations of the show.
In the first season the suitor is this British aristocrat who is very well played and again a very likeable character despite being an arsehole. If this was a straightforward feminist narrative then Adam would be the bad guy, but he isn’t. He’s as much of an anti-hero as the two female leads. Similarly, the owner of the show Chet, who Quinn is having an affair with in the first season, is kind of a prick but also the sort of person you’d quite like to get drunk with. It emerges that he basically stole the idea for Everlasting from Quinn and they get into a legal battle, which complicates their romantic relationship, further complicated by the fact Chet is married. In a lot of ways the soap opera behind the camera is more fun than the semi-scripted soap opera within Everlasting.
So Adam and Chet are both somewhat stereotyped – Adam is a man whore who is simply trying to rehabilitate his public image, Chet is a lazy cheater who stole his biggest success from a woman. But neither are demonised for this, they are simply portrayed as human beings with flaws but also with some redeeming qualities, just like Quinn and Rachel. There is no overall winner here, they all struggle against one another and though Rachel comes out on top more often than not the whole process is slowly killing her.
This element of Unreal goes a bit bananas in the second season when Rachel convinces Quinn that they should have their first black suitor. There is a hilarious scene where Rachel is having sex with the guy’s cousin and she’s screaming out ‘I made it happen, the first black suitor, we’re going to make history!’. This is, I am sure, an homage to the scene in Network where Faye Dunaway is having sex with William Holden and she’s talking about ratings and getting off on that as much as she is on the sex.
So the next clip I want to play is from the first episode of season two when, the night after this big party with the sex scene, Quinn and Rachel are on the phone to the network president, trying to convince him that it’s the right decision.
(4:50 – 7:30)
I imagine by now you’re getting a good idea of why I like this show and how it appeals to my sense of humour. This bit of dialogue is sexist towards both men and women, racist towards both black and white men and shows how these things are used by entertainment producers to gain attention through conflict.
And herein lies a truth that a lot of people in progressive circles don’t want to admit – that politics is not a solution to racism or sexism or other prejudices. In fact, 9 times out of 10 politics and the government just make it worse. Once you get politics involved you get into some media slanging match where everyone is playing identity politics and populism and nothing gets done. It just takes these tensions and amplifies them. Honestly, I think the way to confront racism and sexism in a general sense is through culture. Obviously when it becomes a criminal issue then it is best confronted through the justice system, or at least by harassing the justice system into doing something about it. What you do about institutional racism or sexism I’m not sure, but legislation isn’t a lot of use now that basic equality of legal rights has been established. Beyond that it isn’t a problem you can solve with laws.
But it might be a problem you can solve through culture, or at least alleviate some of the worst effects. In the second season of Unreal they have a black suitor – a pro footballer called Darius Beck. In the first episode it emerges that one of the female contestants is a southerner who shot to fame by posing in a confederate flag bikini on Instagram. They try to turn her into a female Donald Trump – their words, not mine – but in one episode Darius ends up going to her hometown to meet her family. While Rachel and the others are expecting some kind of race relations nightmare the girl’s family are very accepting and warm and are big fans of Darius because he’s a good footballer. Indeed, the girl and her family aren’t really racist at all, particularly compared to what Quinn says in the clip I just played.
So they set up expectations – confederate flag bikini on a blonde white girl from the south who is a bit ditsy – and then subvert them. This not only makes for unpredictable writing and good TV but also shows how one of their aims is to take these tropes and stereotypes that reality TV and media in general employ, and undermine them.
‘The Show’ as the system
At the start of season 2 Chet comes back from a six month retreat ‘hunting with his tribe’ in Patagonia. He is slimmed down, off the cocaine and feeling a renewed sense of purpose, and tries to take back control of Everlasting from Quinn. This leads to a fight between the two of them, so Rachel goes to the network president to try to get control of the show herself. This fails and they end up bringing in Coleman Wasserman – a hotshot young producer. He is modelled loosely on JJ Abrams and even compares himself to Abrams at one point. Naturally he and Rachel have an affair which then goes horribly wrong and this leads to us finding out Rachel’s terrible secret that explains why she is how she is.
So there is a complex political struggle throughout season 2 for control of the show itself. But what is the show without Quinn and Rachel to produce it? And without the contestants and the suitor and all the crew running around filming all of this? And the location, this ludicrous gaudy McMansion? The show as such is simply a brand name and an idea, a label attached to this complex of different things that actually make up what it is.
Likewise, ‘the show’ is the thing that people are trying to protect and maintain, because it gives them all employment. Most of them kinda hate their jobs but they still don’t want to be fired or out of work. So Everlasting exists as an abstract entity to be fought over but also deferred to. Kinda like God or government or ‘the media’. Indeed, perhaps it is a metaphor for ‘the system’ i.e. a bunch of different ideas and values, some conflicting with others, that are institutionalised and thus have a constant and permanent affect on our society.
Another clip from episode 1 of season 2 illustrates this very well. At this point Rachel is the showrunner, having taken over from Quinn. Quinn then takes back control when Chet shows up. Also in this sequence is Maddison – a young PA who is promoted to producer when she gives Chet a blowjob. Maddison is interviewing one of the contestants and is screwing it up so Quinn intervenes, telling Rachel to get on the walkie talkie and tell Maddison what to say. So we have Quinn telling Rachel what to do and Rachel telling Maddison what to do, and thus the values of the show – the system – are institutionalised in the next generation.
(25:00 – 32:20)
This scene brings it all together – the deceit and manipulation, the contrast between the unreality of Everlasting and the dark, nasty reality of the producers, and here again we have the subversion of the stereotype of the naive young nerd. Maddison is a slender, geeky girl with pigtails, totally out of her depth. While she is so upset by what she has to do in this scene that she vomits, she is turned on by it. Later in the episode she says to Rachel that having her in her ear was ‘like a drug, or an orgasm’. While we’re expecting this to be really disturbing for Maddison this expectation is subverted. Maddison actually gets a perverse enjoyment out of being taught how to manipulate someone, like being taught how to do a magic trick. She represents the neophyte who is inducted into the world of black magic and, while initially horrified, desperately wants to learn more. So I can thoroughly recommend Unreal, both as a piece of entertainment and as a piece of TV that not only comments on the stereotypes underpinning our whole mass media culture but actively subverts them.