'UnREAL': Challenging the Conventions of Reality TV

'UnREAL': Challenging the Conventions of Reality TV
Copyright:  Daniel Go  under Creative Commons

Copyright: Daniel Go under Creative Commons

Kristen Field

People say more and more frequently now that it’s important to know where the food we eat comes from: whether the coffee we’re buying is fair trade, or if the chicken we’re about to roast was kept in a cage for its entire life. Considering the growing prevalence of this mindset, I think it’s fascinating that the new Lifetime series UnREAL has emerged now, after nineteen – that’s right, nineteen – seasons of The Bachelor (the show that inspired UnREAL) have aired in the United States. UnREAL gives us an insight into what it takes to produce a reality series like The Bachelor, and sometimes the revelations are so unthinkable that they leave a sense of unease that’s almost impossible to shake. But is it really necessary for us to know what goes on behind the scenes of the reality shows we become so easily obsessed with? How much damage is really being done to us as individuals by allowing ourselves to get momentarily lost in the unadulterated superficiality and entertainment of these shows? With the Australian version of The Bachelor having just begun its third season, I thought I’d take a moment to shed some light on why it might be worthwhile taking a look at this new series.

The fact that UnREAL is bringing to light so much of the mechanics behind reality shows like The Bachelor begs the question of whether reality television would maintain its allure even after we’re exposed to the gritty details of its creation. Contestants are asked to put their own interests aside for the time that they’re on the show: they belong to the network now, and producers have the right to use them in whatever way they see fit. On top of this problematic loss of agency, I can’t help but wonder whether shows like The Bachelor are warping our understanding of love, something we struggle to define in concrete terms even without the influence of reality television. Is marrying a complete stranger worth it for the money? For the fame? And when is a wedding not a union of two complete strangers, when it’s so impossible to truly know someone, regardless of how much time you’ve spent together? Examining shows like The Bachelor forces us to ask ourselves these questions, and I guess we should be thankful for that.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, one of the creators of UnREAL along with Marti Noxon, worked as a producer on The Bachelor for three years. And while we seem to have a thirst nowadays for 'real' stories – shows, books, and movies that are more and more grounded in facts – the fact that Shapiro is writing from experience lends an almost horrific air to the show. On the surface, UnREAL is a soapy melodrama that revels in its own emotionality. Stripped down to its bare bones, however, we can’t escape the fact that the events it showcases are most likely based on real occurrences. In the very first episode, where we see the return of Everlasting (a not-so-subtle take on The Bachelor) being shot, one contestant’s virginity is used as a ploy (by the producers, no less) to create drama, and the abuse another contestant suffered at the hands of her ex-husband is used as a tool as well, all in the name of enhancing the viewability – and profitability – of the show.

Many of the characters on UnREAL are well aware of the manipulation they’re involved in on a daily basis, but it’s those who seem to be in complete denial of what they’re capable of (the excellent Aline Elasmar as the well-intentioned Shia) that are truly frightening. Towards the end of the first season, after a contestant (I won’t say who) has committed suicide, Quinn, the executive producer of the show (the formidable and enthralling Constance Zimmer) tells a network executive over Skype that the ratings were up twenty-two percent from the week before. She remarks with almost-dead eyes, her tone just as defeated as her expression, that, 'People should die more often,' only to be met with genuine excitement from the network executive, who exclaims, 'I know!' with a wide grin. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

Contestants are asked to put their own interests aside for the time that they’re on the show: they belong to the network now, and producers have the right to use them in whatever way they see fit.

It isn’t only the contestants who suffer on Everlasting. The leading man, Adam, seems to wish he were anywhere else on the planet but on this show. And feeling as though her best – and most cunning – producer, Rachel, is warming to him, Quinn reminds her: 'He’s a prop.' Those are her exact words, no paraphrasing. Nevertheless, Adam does seem to understand what he’s gotten himself into. He knows that 'a moment alone before the ceremony' with a contestant means a conversation with two producers, three camera operators, and an audience of millions watching. But his awareness doesn’t seem to be enough to stop him from being sucked in: once the show gets its claws into you, it isn’t going to let go. At the end of the third episode, sharing a quiet moment with Quinn, Rachel remarks with a sort-of fond sarcasm, 'I’m never getting out of here,' to which Quinn replies, 'Why would you want to? You’re home.' I should note that two contestants are tearing each other to shreds – literally and figuratively – in the background, too.

These people – both the contestants and the producers – seem to be addicted to this insanity: feeling pain, and inflicting it, too. The show does make a concerted effort to portray and explore mental illness, which is a wonderful rarity on television. We find out in the pilot that Rachel had a breakdown during the previous season, unable to deal with her job and what it requires of her. But she returns in the pilot, to the surprise of everyone she walks past on set, and as the series progresses, it seems more and more that she might want to be there, despite the fact that she appears to be performing her job under duress, paying back what she owes for the damage she did to the show, materially. We learn that her outburst (on set, while the cameras were rolling) caused a contestant to fly into a rage, which led to phenomenal ratings. It seems impossible to do any permanent damage to Everlasting’s brand.

While Rachel’s instability is as intriguing as it is frightening, there are much darker matters that UnREAL touches on. One of the contestants, Anna, suffers from an eating disorder that none of the producers seem too concerned about. Rachel even offers to help her get the specific food she needs in order to binge and purge. And Mary, the single mother the show has roped in to play the MILF this season (all the contestants have their specific roles to fill), suffers from bi-polar disorder and takes medication to treat her symptoms, but again, this is of little importance to the producers. They just want to make sure Mary is drinking enough wine to be good entertainment. Not to provide good entertainment – to be good entertainment. Because it is very clear that, in the eyes of the show, these women are objects, nothing more.

While it may be a dark look into the cost of the escape that reality television provides, UnREAL is definitely worth watching. Besides Shiri Appleby as the incredibly damaged (and damaging) Rachel, other standouts include the adorable Breeda Wool as Faith, the closeted lesbian from a tiny Southern town, and as I mentioned before, Constance Zimmer is just brilliant, regardless (or because) of the terrifying glint in her eyes that is there most of the time she’s onscreen. And despite her apparent lack of empathy, I think it’s important to note how much of a prisoner Quinn is in her own life. She’s been carrying on an affair with the show’s creator – who continues to promise to leave his wife, but never does – for seven years, and she seems to harbour just as little freedom as the rest of the people around her, forced to bend to the will of network executives and the man she loves. This sort of devastation is rife throughout the show, but from that pain stems something incredibly fun and entertaining. Could this be a reflection of reality television, its effects on those who watch it and those who make it? Who knows, but it’s fascinating to see how much entertainment value can be found in the making of entertainment value.

Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.