The air of unreality
I’ve often said that a work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation, and that seems especially true of the Lifetime series UnREAL. Reviewing its uneven but compelling first season, which followed a pair of ruthless reality show producers as they manipulated their contestants, their coworkers, and themselves, I wrote:
UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses…The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick…The plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience…By making [its fictional reality series] 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.
I concluded: “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.” And I was especially curious to see how it would handle the transition to its second season.
Having watched the first couple of episodes of its current run, I’m still not sure. But I have the feeling that the show’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, would agree with many of the criticisms I mentioned above. Here are a few excerpts from the remarkably candid profile of Shapiro by D.T. Max that was published last week in The New Yorker:
Executives at Lifetime offered to buy the idea [of UnREAL] immediately. Afterward, Shapiro had second thoughts worthy of a victorious Bachelor contestant: “I was calling 411, asking, ‘Do you have the main number for HBO?’” She couldn’t reach any executives there—this is her story, anyway—and she proceeded with Lifetime…
The studio also asked the writers to expand the role of Jeremy…He fit the aesthetic of Lifetime movies but was not Shapiro’s type…Jeremy, she told me, was “conceived as a one-season character.” Later, she e-mailed me: “I could not get on board with the idea of Jeremy being Rachel’s ‘Mr. Big’ (which was brought up).” Still, the studio had pushed for Josh Kelly to return. “They can ask you to do it, but they can’t make you,” she told me. Like Rachel, Shapiro frequently has to decide whether she is a bomb-thrower or an inside player with misgivings. In this case, she decided to play nice.
Which all leads up to a vivid moment when Carol Barbee, the showrunner, enters the writers’ room and says: “Come on. Let’s put on our big-boy pants and make a story for Jeremy.”
Reading this, I found myself wondering how Josh Kelly, the actor who plays Jeremy, would respond—or the executives at Lifetime itself. (Elsewhere in the article, Shaprio says of Kelly: “All I can say is we employ a veteran, and he’s a good person.” She continues: “Integrating Jeremy was a small price to pay for having a black bachelor and letting Quinn and Rachel go all the way to darkness.”) Every television show, it seems safe to assume, is the product of similar compromises, but it’s rare to see them discussed in public for a series that hasn’t even aired two full seasons yet, and which hasn’t exactly been an invulnerable ratings juggernaut. A hint of backstage conflict doesn’t necessarily tarnish the brand of UNReal, which is explicitly about the tussles behind the scenes of a troubled series, and if anything, it adds an intriguing layer of subtext. Shaprio says of Rachel, her fictional alter ego: “It’s really about ‘I’m savvy enough and smart enough that I know I have to give the network all the frosting and the froufrou and all the titties that they need, and in the process I’m going to slip them this super-important thing.’” Yet if I were Shaprio, I’d be a little uncomfortable with how the article portrayed my relationship with the collaborators who have enabled this show to exist. This includes co-creator Marti Noxon, who says of her partnership with Shapiro: “I don’t think I’ve had as contentious and fruitful a collaboration since I worked with Matt Weiner on Mad Men.”
That quote, in itself, is a small masterpiece of spin, pairing “contentious” with “fruitful” to imply that one leads to the other, and cleverly dropping the name of the one show that ought to silence any concerns we might have about disquiet on the set. But the comparison also works against the series itself. Matthew Weiner, a notorious perfectionist, had contentious interactions with his cast, his crew, and his network, but the result was a show that was staggeringly consistent in tone and quality. You can’t say this about UnREAL, in which the strain of its competing forces is clearly visible: the new season, especially, has struggled to top the delicious toxicity of its debut while keeping the plot wheels turning, and it sometimes verges on shrill. Thanks to the glimpse that we’ve been given of its travails, I’ll be watching the series with even greater interest than before—although I also run the risk of excusing its flaws because of what we now know about its internal tensions. Such justifications are tempting, but flimsy. Every television show in history has suffered from conflict among its collaborators, network interference, competing incentives, and characters whom the show’s writing staff would prefer to forget. When a series is working, you don’t see any of it, as you so often do with UnREAL. Shapiro knows as well as anyone how much of television is an illusion, and most of the fun of this show lies in how it picks the medium apart. But the result would be even more persuasive if it were better about creating those illusions on its own.