Reality television is usually labeled a guilty pleasure. Why guilty? We tend to derive pleasure from watching petty but vicious competition and a range of emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. (Though, the former tends to offer more entertainment and next-day buzz.) But should we feel guilty about watching a show like “The Bachelor” for its lack of educational nourishment or for more sinister reasons? UnReal, a scripted program that aired its first season on Lifetime this summer, makes the case that the viewer should consider the manipulation and morally questionable ethics involved in producing a reality program.
Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro crafted a show inspired by Shapiro’s time working as a creative producer on “The Bachelor”. The show follows the behind-the-scene drama of the creative producers and the contestants on a Bachelor-esque reality show named “Everlasting”. The show repeatedly emphasizes the dichotomy between a show that sells a romantic fairytale and the decidedly unromantic nature of production.
At the beginning of this season’s “Unreal”, the fierce, sharp-tongued executive producer, Quinn, offers cash bonuses for nudity, ambulances and cat fights, all in order to get “Everlasting” started. The protagonist, creative producer Rachel, plays the game well. She brings a contestant to tears by bringing up a past trauma and barters with the show’s suitor, telling him which contestants to seduce or discard. The producers compete against each other as they try to craft compelling storylines, using the young women looking for love or fame as pawns.
“UnReal” seeks to educate its audience on the inner workings of reality television. The show earned applause and affirmation from reality producers (including a few from “The Bachelor”) for its accurate depiction of emotional manipulation of the contestants and prioritization of ‘making good television’ over the contestants’ best interests. “UnReal” forces the viewers to think about how media becomes easy to consume and addictive.
The price for escapist entertainment is high considering how the producers control and isolate the talent. Yet the show also aims to display complex characters. Despite the producers’ exploitation of the show’s talent, they are not depicted as wholly evil people. The audience is supposed to root for and sympathize with everyone at least once during the season.
Adding interest to the complexity of the characters is the fact that most of the characters are women. There are two male main characters: the suitor and the show’s creator. Numerous critics label “UnReal” as a feminist show. The women on the show have a myriad of concerns and issues, aside from their romantic lives. Rachel and Quinn frequently bemoan the societal obsession with romance that conforms to traditional gender roles (a wealthy husband to take care of his less successful wife emotionally and financially for eternity).
The show also depicts sexism in mass culture by explicitly outlining the female tropes that are created in reality television: the bitch, the older, not sexually appealing woman, the masculine, not sexually appealing woman, the token angry, black woman and the wife material. The television tropes exist in non-scripted and scripted realms, as well as in reality as stereotypes and critiques of women. “UnReal” presents these tropes through the magic of editing and production on “Everlasting”, but shows that each woman has her own unique story and none of the labels actually hold up.
The characters Rachel and Quinn are fully aware of the sexism that their reality dating show peddles to the masses. Neither of them buys into the concept of romance to the extent that the contestants do, but they still struggle between wanting the fairytale ending that their show depicts and wanting to be savvy and ambitious in both their professional and personal lives. As the season unfurls, the contestants realize that the competition is not about falling in love and more of them attempt to stretch their few minutes of fame. Meanwhile, the suitor cares little about any of the contestants and has his own plans to use the show to launch his professional career. They live in an environment designed to be a lovers’ paradise, but each person is looking out for their own skin. Unlike the viewer, they don’t get caught up in the production.
“UnReal” is full of drama, driven by the flawed characters’ poor choices. The contestants pettily try to talk down their rivals or make deals with the suitor in order to stay on the show longer. However, the producers are far worse: encouraging the women to drink too much, taking away medication and taking advantage of emotional and mental disorders. At worst, these actions contribute to the rape and suicide of two different contestants. The depictions of such serious subjects on a show about a reality television competition are where “UnReal” falters.
Like on other dramas (from the critically-acclaimed ones such as Mad Men to network melodramas like Days of Our Lives), rape and suicide as exciting plot points frequently fail to adequately and responsibly address the subjects. “UnReal” never acknowledges the rape of a contestant outside of the one episode it occurs in. The suicide of a contestant, triggered by memories of an abusive relationship, is covered in two episodes. Then, the show moves on to wedding planning and increased competition between the contestants. By lightly brushing over these subjects, especially when leaving them out would not hurt the show, UnReal fails as a feminist show trying to educate its audience.
A show created by women and featuring women of varying ages with fully developed personalities is rare on television. Despite its drawbacks, “UnReal” has a fast pace and fascinating characters. Whether you love or hate reality television, the behind-the-scenes look and the questions it poses appeal to all. The drama and romantic extravagance of reality television plus witty satire make UnReal an addictive must-watch.