Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

TV: UnREAL

unreal_still

Constance Zimmer and the cast of UnREAL

Who: Marti Noxon & Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, co-creators & executive producers; Carol Barbee, season 2 showrunner
What: Drama series
Where: Lifetime (don’t laugh), Mondays at 10 PM. (Season 1 is also on Hulu.)
When: Season 2 premiered June 6, 2016.
Why Watch: In addition to being created and run by three women, five out of seven of UnREAL‘s writers are women, which can’t help but create an interesting take on a massively popular TV franchise – The Bachelor – that is also massively sexist. (13 of 15 episodes were directed by men, so UnREAL‘s still got some work to do.) Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as a producer on The Bachelor for three years, manipulating the contestants, depriving them of sleep, and giving them terrible advice in order to get them to open up on camera. Now, she’s created a fictionalized account of her experiences, warts – so many warts – and all, and she’s got Critics Choice and Peabody Awards to show for it.

UnREAL catalogs the producers’ perspective of Everlasting, a stand-in for The Bachelor, in which twenty impossibly fit female contestants vie for the love of one generically handsome, All-American, white – always white – man. Rachel (Shiri Appleby, expertly walking the line between damaged and dangerous), a deputy producer of the show, is a mentally precarious, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt-wearing master manipulator. When the show’s in-house psychologist feeds her a contestant’s insecurities, medical issues, and family traumas, Rachel sidles up to the eager woman with a conspiratorial smile, feeding her compliments and booze, and assuring her of the suitor’s unique interest in her. She befriends them – and then betrays them, striking like the snake in the grass that she is. Except they never know what – or who – hit them.

UnREAL isn’t about women turning on one another, though, any more than it’s about them finding love. Rachel’s on the rebound from a nervous breakdown (that the show drove her to), and she struggles with her continued (mis)treatment of the contestants. But her Executive Producer Quinn (a steely and deliciously devious Constance Zimmer) pushes her to her (literal) breaking point, demanding her to create drama where there is none and threatening her with lawsuits or emotional blackmail (“for her own good”) whenever she tries to leave the show. It’s a toxic relationship, but a mutually beneficial one. Rachel wants to make “real” TV someday; sexist, shitty Everlasting and Quinn is how she’s going to get there. Meanwhile, Quinn’s being screwed – literally and professionally – by her married man-boy colleague (Craig Bierko, crazy-eyed and smarmy). These women need each other; in a misogynistic, fucked-up industry, they’re the only ones who have each other’s backs.

UnREAL‘s not just a savage send-up of reality TV (but, hoo boy, has it got bite); and its subversiveness goes further than its complicated mentor-mentee relationship. This being Lifetime, it of course involves a love interest (or two) for Rachel, but that’s by far its least interesting facet. Covering everything from eating disorders to suicide to the more obvious sexisms of its compete-for-a-man subject, UnREAL uses its behind-the-scenes drama to explore why anyone would be drawn to participate in a show like this in the first place. For the (bad) boys, it’s image recovery – they need some good PR, and they’ll do whatever it takes to redeem themselves in the public’s eye. For the women, it’s more complicated. There’s the activist who (doesn’t give AF about the show and) wants to promote the Black Lives Matter movement; the single mom trying to escape an abusive ex; the “hot Latina” who wants the fame, but knows damn well she’s worth more than her tits and ass. On paper, these may sound like weak – and maybe even stereotypical – attempts at female empowerment from a network known for its (fictionalized) slapping around and slicing up of women on a weekly basis. But Shapiro and Noxon and their writers treat these women with a care and respect rare for a drama of this soapiness, and except for the times that Rachel manipulates them to act otherwise, the contestants generally refuse to treat one another badly.

So why would any woman marry a man after only knowing him for three weeks? Rachel’s typically direct response: “Because of every fairytale they’ve seen since they were five.” And as badly as Everlasting treats or represents the women, as Quinn points out, “It’s no worse than what happens to them in real life.” Quinn takes advantage of female stereotypes and fantasies to get ahead in a male-dominated industry, as does Rachel, but they are hyper-aware of the minefield that all women must navigate everyday in order to survive and thrive. UnREAL is highly addictive, giddy satire with trenchant commentary on celebrity culture, unscrupulous media, and gender and racial inequality. It may be fiction, but it often feels uncomfortably real – and damn does that make for some great TV.

Bechdel TestPASS

  • Two named women…: Yes. 
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYes. Rachel and Quinn talk about women(‘s issues), mental health, and television production, among other things. The female contestants also discuss eating disorders, Black Lives Matter, suicide, domestic violence, slut-shaming, etc. This show tries to cover it all.

Racial Bechdel Test: PASS

  • Two named people of color…: Yes. The first season isn’t great on this (with only a few female contestants of color and one black producer), but Noxon and Shapiro have upped their game with season two, which features the first black bachelor (let’s make a note that this has yet to happen on Bachelor) and a more diverse group of contestants (including a Pakistani woman).
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes
  • About something other than a white person…: YesOnly three episodes into the second season, they’re already referencing/discussing Confederate flags, Eric Garner, and head scarfs and hoodies.
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