The UnREAL world
Few television shows in recent memory have broken out as spectacularly as UnREAL, Lifetime’s toxically amusing scripted drama about the making of a fictional reality series. After reading Emily Nussbaum’s rave review in The New Yorker, I was inspired to check it out, and my wife and I have shotgunned the entire first season over the last two weeks. It isn’t perfect, but it’s fantastically watchable, and it’s all anchored by Shiri Appleby’s work as troubled producer Rachel Goldberg, which is nothing less than the richest, most purely enjoyable performance I’ve seen this year from any television actor, male or female. The writing on Rachel isn’t particularly subtle—she’s often introduced in a scene while stuffing food into her face, and a moment of heartbreak late in the season leaves her stalking through the set like a wraith from The Ring—but Appleby nimbly navigates an insanely difficult range of emotional notes. Rachel is called upon to be calculating, vulnerable, sexy, bedraggled, guilt-ridden, opportunistic, and borderline sociopathic, often all at the same time, and Appleby pulls it off by the skin of her teeth. Combine that with Constance Zimmer’s sour-apple charisma as Quinn, Rachel’s mentor and occasional nemesis, and you have a drama anchored by nothing less than the relationship between a pair of complicated female antiheroes. That’s a noteworthy achievement in itself, and the show isn’t above calling attention to it in the dialogue: “No one wants to watch a show about women working.”
That said, UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses. Despite some promising efforts early on, it never turns its fictional show’s contestants into compelling characters, and they’re rarely treated as anything more than easily manipulated pawns in Quinn and Rachel’s game. (It doesn’t help that the most intriguing contestant, Anna, as played by the striking Johanna Braddy, inexplicably disappears for a good chunk of the season, only to return for the final stretch.) Like Orange is the New Black, another uncategorizable show that has extended the range of tones and stories we’ve seen for women on television, it has trouble with its male characters. Adam, the bachelor at the center of the reality show Everlasting, starts as a caricature, inches toward complexity, and circles back around to being an idiot again as soon as the plot demands it. The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick. Only Chet, the show’s creator, ever really comes into focus, with Craig Bierko, an old pro, sinking his teeth into every line of an otherwise underwritten part. And the plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience, with Rachel pulling the strings of everyone around her with an ease that puts Frank Underwood to shame. Still, every hour moves like clockwork, and it manages to create an entire world—and really two—over the course of only ten episodes.
What makes UnREAL so fun, and ultimately somewhat frustrating, is that it’s essentially a roman à clef in which the names that have been changed aren’t those of specific celebrities, but of an entire category of television. Its fictional reality show, Everlasting, is interesting precisely to the extent that it reminds us of The Bachelor. (One of the show’s many pleasures is how perfectly it replicates the glossy look of the programs it’s skewering: when intercut with the narrative taking place behind the scenes, which is shot in a rougher, grab-and-go camera style, the contrasting textures give each episode surprising visual heft.) And the closer it sticks to its obvious inspirations, the more engaging it becomes. That why it feels like a strategic mistake when the show veers toward genuine tragedy halfway through the season, with a plot development—involving the unexpected departure of one of the contestants—that would have resulted in any show in the real world going on hiatus at once. It’s a grabby episode, but it subtly undermines the rest of the season. When we watch a story like this, we want to feel like flies on the wall, and to believe that we’d find similar backstabbing and manipulation behind the scenes of any reality show, no matter how innocuous or mundane. What we don’t necessarily want to see is a cartoonish list of the worst things that could possibly happen on a reality series. Everlasting starts off as a careful knockoff of The Bachelor, but it mutates into a show that strains all belief, which weakens the exposé that the overarching series offers up backstage.
And it’s a curious misstep, because this show is otherwise so shrewd about what a good reality series does best: the queasy creation of empathy. By the time I’m done with a run of a show like Top Chef, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know many of the people involved, and UnREAL is very clever at showing us how so much of it is created out of smoke, mirrors, and convenient cutaways. But even if what a reality show presents is a fantasy, it has to ground itself in experiences and personalities to which the audience can unthinkingly relate. Rachel and Quinn understand this, but the creators of UnREAL itself seem to occasionally forget it. In a roman à clef, it’s paradoxically more effective if the stakes aren’t too high: we want to think that we’re glimpsing the sordid underbelly of something that plays placidly in the background of our living rooms. This may seem to undercut conventional wisdom about raising the stakes, but really, it’s about knowing where that pressure is best applied. By making Everlasting into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted. At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.