TV

Inside The Politics Of ‘UnREAL’: The Biggest And Most Entertaining Mindfuck On TV

Did it go to far this season? Was that the whole point?

This post discusses plot points from UnREAL‘s first two seasons.

My house is about to become overrun with Bachelor Fever. The sickly tinkle of faux-romantic music will filter from the TV, signalling the start of a new episode, and we’ll gaze transfixed at the ridiculous (and ridiculously attractive) men and women competing for a chance at love with a vacuous himbo/bimbo [Ed note: not you, Richie. Love you Richie].

It’s not always clear what makes a show like The Bachelor, and its “equal-opportunity” sister show, The Bachelorette, so thoroughly addictive. Yes, it’s trashy and often offensive to women. Yes, it’s probably as fake as the tears the contestants shed as they vie for the love of a cardboard spunk. Nevertheless, its classic fairytale magic mixes with our cynical eagerness to judge and produces a rather irresistible combination.

It’s this combination that’s retooled so effectively in the second season of UnREAL: Lifetime’s addictive drama that goes “behind-the-scenes” of fictional The Bachelor stand-in Everlasting to show you how the sausage is made. And they should know; UnREAL is the brainchild of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on The Bachelor whose experience on the show was so toxic she threatened self-harm to escape her contract. Freed from The Bachelor’s shackles, Shapiro set out to expose the show’s Machiavellian machinations via UnREAL, wherein producers manipulate the suitors, the contestants and each other to can the juiciest episodes.

The genius of the show is sewn into the fine line it treads: critiquing the socio-political incorrectness of reality dating shows while also manipulating those very same gender, racial and mental health issues for its own gains. As a result, the show is so rich it’s dessert-like. Shapiro and co pile layers of crunchy satire over fluffy soap-opera icing — an extravagant mille-feuille of trash/treasure that’s perfect for those viewers who want a little sting with their schmaltz. Like any indulgence, it can be tough to deduce exactly how satisfied you’re feeling after.

Welcome To Satan’s Asshole

The first season of UnREAL was an unlikely hit: a glossy drama about the fatuous world of reality TV from the Lifetime network (home of made-for-TV movies with titles like 12 Men of Christmas and The Pregnancy Pact). Perhaps this is what caught the attention of critics and the public. Shapiro’s cool, acrid series, co-created with TV vet Marti Noxon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Glee, Mad Men), offered something for everyone: love-addicted drama, dark complex performances, and biting social satire.

A large part of UnREAL’s success in season one sat on the shoulders of its two female leads: the excellent Constance Zimmer (Entourage) as Everlasting’s executive producer, Quinn, and Shiri Appleby as her protégé, damaged field producer Rachel. Zimmer’s Quinn is all angles — sharp smirks and pointed remarks. She’s a master manipulator, twitching the strings of the show’s contestants and her producer minions with equal dexterity. (She also gets most of the show’s best, most snort-inducing hilarious lines.)

The show’s wobbly centre is undoubtedly Rachel, played by Appleby as a delicate tangle of neuroses and narcissism. Season one begins as Rachel returns to Everlasting following an on-screen breakdown during the show’s previous finale, when she chugged a bottle of champagne, denounced her job as “Satan’s asshole”, then drove off in a stolen sports car reserved for Everlasting’s winning couple. Now she’s lying on the floor of a limousine packed with brand-new coiffed contestants, replete with a messy top knot, a determined grimace and a t-shirt reading: “This is what a feminist looks like”.

If Everlasting is Satan’s asshole, season one of UnREAL dumps Rachel straight back in it. Backstabbing producers bait her; her ex-boyfriend, a cameraman on the show, pines for her; and Quinn pushes her to succeed at any cost. Because, though Rachel is a hot mess and a self-avowed feminist, she’s also a brilliantly ruthless producer. When she arrives back on set, she winds the best, most entertaining contestants — and the hunky new suitor, British hotel magnate Adam (Freddie Stroma) — tight around her fingers, manipulating them to show the worst, most desperately clichéd parts of themselves, feminism be damned.

Shapiro and Noxon have pitched UnREAL as a kind of workplace battle of the sexes: Quinn and Rachel against the fuckboys of the Everlasting set. Though self-possessed, Quinn is stuck under the thumb of her married boyfriend and boss, Chet, Everlasting’s coke-snorting creator; and Rachel juggles the affections of her wounded ex Jeremy, and Adam, whose soft spot for Rachel turns quickly to stolen moments of off-camera passion. Quinn and Rachel push themselves — and the contestants — over the edge to keep Everlasting’s ratings up, compromising some of their personal politics (and personal relationships) to wrest control of the show from Chet and his brethren of sexist network executives.

The first season started sharp and slid into sloppy. A melodramatic turn in the season’s sixth episode, involving medication tampering and the suicide of a contestant, sent the story a little off rails. And the show has always had a little too much affection for its confected love triangles.

However, as UnREAL’s first season drew to a close, with Quinn and Rachel lounging on patio furniture, taking stock of their victory, it was clear which “couple” we were meant to root for. “I love you,” Rachel tells Quinn. “You know that, right?” Quinn replies: “I love you too, weirdo.”

Upping The Ante In Season Two

UnREAL’s first season was a gamble, and in season two Shapiro and co doubled down on their provocative hat trick. It brought us back for a new season of Everlasting, this one spearheaded by Quinn and Rachel (Chet is licking his wounds, albeit briefly, at a macho paleolithic boot camp), and featured the franchise’s first African-American suitor, embattled football star Darius (B.J. Brett). This is no doubt an unsubtle dig at the real The Bachelor, which has never featured a black bachelor or bachelorette. Rachel, whose politics remain progressive only when it suits her, is high off her own supply: just minutes into the season we see her, mid-orgasm, screaming, “It was me! The first black suitor! We’re gonna make history!”.

The show refocused on race for the second season, and in its unique way UnREAL once again skewered the hypocrisy of “post-racial America” while manipulating the most provocative pivots of the country’s racial issues. To enhance the drama of the first black suitor, Rachel enlisted some especially inflammatory contestants: a white Southern girl, Beth-Ann (Lindsay Musil), who racked up thousands of Instagram followers with a photo of herself in a Confederate flag bikini; and a young Black Lives Matter activist, Ruby (Denee Benton), whom Rachel lures on the show with the promise of an increased platform for her cause.

UnREAL takes every opportunity to dip into key contemporary racial issues: Ruby attends the show’s first ballgown event in an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt; and Rachel convinces Beth-Ann to wear her Confederate flag bikini in her first encounter with Darius. “You’re not embarrassed of your heritage are you?” Rachel coos. “Freedom of speech is so important”.

But it also profits, in much the same was as Everlasting does, off the topical drama attached to a show where a group of mostly white women are competing for the love of a black man. Quinn courts the uneasy network executives, quipping, “I promise you 20 million viewers the minute he lays black hands on a white ass”, assuring them that Darius is “not black” but “football black”.

UnREAL absolutely would have known that, given the IRL attention to racial diversity on screen, the prospect of a black suitor for their show within a show would attract a great deal more intrigued viewers (as well as a bevy of shareable online thinkpieces). Shapiro and co. relish the same opportunities as Quinn, Rachel and the other producers to steer their show into every sticky situation possible concerning race.

Is There A Line Between Satire And Self-Parody?

All this sometimes means UnREAL trips itself up on the very clichés it’s attempting to skewer. Using race as a cattle prod for the show’s viewers sometimes reads as a little tacky, just as it does when we watch Beth-Ann’s horrified face as she realises the suitor is a black celebrity and she is meeting him in a Confederate flag bikini. In the season’s finale last week, many argued the show stepped too far by invoking the Black Lives Matter movement in a storyline where Rachel and the new showrunner engineer a volatile situation that ends with a black man being shot by the police. The scenario was tacky and exploitative: bringing real-world tragedies to TV for the shock value, and to speed up Rachel’s inevitable mental breakdown, instead of focusing on the lives of the show’s threatened black men.

When you have to shoot a black man to ramp up the drama for your white anti-heroine, you need to rethink your storytelling. The fine line between satire and unwitting self-parody is one UnREAL occasionally stumbles over in its second season.

The show also doubled down on its attention to gender politics. In season one the series was about working women who worked against all odds. Roadblocks did nothing to deter the ambitions of Quinn and Rachel, and at the end of the season they were rewarded with a satisfying victory against their oppressors. Season two opens as a garish celebration of that triumph: Quinn and Rachel, drunk, high and horny, are getting matching tattoos that read “Money. Dick. Power.”

But the show quickly splits up their chief duplicitous duo: Rachel and Quinn are pitted against each other, divided by their competing desire to be Head Bitch in Charge, as well as by the attentions of two (conversely) controlling men: Chet, who is back to win over Quinn and to transform Everlasting into a celebration of toxic masculinity; and Everlasting’s new showrunner, Coleman (Michael Rady), who is suspiciously kind and attentive to Rachel.

However much UnREAL exposes the hypocrisy of a feminist like Rachel engineering scenarios where women “catfight” each other for attention, it’s still a show that implies women (like Quinn and Rachel) can’t be allies because they are always in competition. It’s still a show that defines women, and their relationships with each other, by the men who control them. Nevertheless, it remains one of the few shows on television to actually show working women working, and all the challenges they face in male-dominated spaces.

These niggling contradictions keep UnREAL both frustrating and seductive — and sometimes frustratingly seductive. If sometimes the show falls into the very trap it’s constructing for its fictional world — of manipulating socio-political issues to lure a controversy-hungry audience — it remains relentlessly complex and fascinating. Sometimes reality and fiction becomes tangled together inextricably, on both Everlasting and UnREAL, where entertainment can turn quickly to exploitation.

UnREAL‘s first and second seasons are streaming now on Stan.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.