As all of our readings this week pertained to the exploitative economic structures and philosophies of reality television, I felt it appropriate to bring Lifetime’s Unreal into the conversation. Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who had previously worked on The Bachelor), Unreal follows the behind-the-scenes drama of a reality dating show titled Everlasting. The show primarily focuses on two women, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), an emotionally perceptive, morally conflicted producer brought back to the show after an emotional and mental breakdown, and Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), the tenacious, morally flexible executive producer who lures Rachel back to the show.
Over the course of the show’s first season (the second season is due this year), we watch Rachel (often against her will) prod and cajole the women competing for the affection of a pompous British playboy, including a single mother with a troubled past, a sexually aggressive model, a closeted virgin from the South, and a woman suffering from bulimia. This prodding leads to high drama both on and off camera on Everlasting, while Rachel is forced to put her economic self-interest ahead of her morals and ethics (it’s worth noting that she is first seen on the show wearing a shirt that reads “This is what a feminist looks like”). Throughout the show, we are reminded of the craven nature of reality TV; its systematic racism, its exploitation of both contestants and below the line laborers, and the disregard for decency in lieu of manufactured drama. Pointedly, one of the few major male characters on the show is Chet Wilson (Craig Bierko), the philandering, drug-addicted creator of Everlasting, who takes almost no part in the day to day functioning of the show.
Unreal was born out of a short film by Shapiro titled Sequin Raze, and was developed into a series by Lifetime, which was in search of a show to compete in the landscape of dark, serialized cable dramas. Lifetime was in pursuit of its own Breaking Bad (an influence Shapiro cites frequently in interviews), and the comparisons are apt. Breaking Bad, while fundamentally a character study on the descent of Walter White, suggested a broader critique of American healthcare, the drug war, and contemporary masculinity. Unreal is similarly focused on the downward spiral of its heroine, but situates this character in an unforgiving world of perpetual exploitation. Rachel may even have fewer viable options than Walter White; she is trapped, unable to get away from the show that already caused one breakdown.
In a fascinating turn, Lifetime has announced that Unreal season two will do something that The Bachelor has (very noticeably) not done, feature an African-American bachelor as its primary object of desire, seemingly in an effort to heighten the show’s already explicit critiques of the reality TV economy, and in particular its structural racism. The second season also promises even more timely cultural critique through two new characters described as a disgraced NFL player (the bachelor) and a Black Lives Matter activist (one of the contestants). It remains to be seen if the second season of the show will reach the artistic and critical heights of the first, but what information is out there suggests that the show is going to double down on its dark, satirical tone. I cannot wait.