The humans caught up in the horrifying drama of UnREAL
Last year, I asked whether my second piece for Lucifer’s Monocle could be a review of a series I had just discovered, one that was defying expectations, labels, and the need to pander to audiences like a miraculous breath of fresh air.
But a year later, after receiving a Peabody Award, a glowing writeup in The New Yorker, and an Emmy Nomination for the mesmerising Constance Zimmer, this enigma of a show still seems, outside the television industry, to be lost in the wilderness of GIFs, clickbait, and limitless accessibility that has all but consumed our ability to actually digest any narrative content at all, brilliant or not.
And yet, in its umpteenth season and all its incarnations, The Bachelor still manages to garner ratings that UnREAL could only dream of.
Articles are written, revealing before the season even begins airing that contestants are complaining about the Bachelor’s body odour, and people respond by calling these women ungrateful, saying they ‘don’t deserve’ to be in the running to win - but win what? Acclaim? A man?
Can people be won?
But that isn’t where our focus lies. We’re interested in betting on who will play the game the best, who will be humiliated, and who will be tricked into cracking, showing they’re just as human as every wrapped viewer (not that anyone would ever admit it, though - that kind of frailty can only be pulled out of us when we’re manipulated on national television).
I’m not one to spout or applaud overwrought pleas for ‘unproblematic’ content or storylines capturing the rose-coloured dreams of every single viewer, but perhaps that’s where the appeal of UnREAL lies: nothing the characters do is excused, but nothing they do is condemned, either.
In UnReal, superficial ploys to appear progressive - right in all the right ways - are exposed for the calculated moves that they are. But the characters mean well, as much as they enjoy the thrill of being first: being groundbreaking, being in control, and most of all, being successful at what they do.
Can good intentions balance out selfish motives? Can both exist in the one person? And if they can, how long can a person live with that duality raging inside them?
A show like The Bachelor (I don’t want to paint every reality show with the same brush, but it seems like there aren’t many exceptions) takes the things that people admit behind the security and secrecy of a computer, what’s said behind backs and searched for on Google, and says: Okay, we get it. This is what you want. We’re going to give it to you. And you don’t have to think about it at all - no questions, no catch. Just enjoy.
But could there be a part of us, deep down, that wants to be questioned? That wants to see something of ourselves onscreen, and not some distant, unreal person who is either something we could only hope to be or something we promise ourselves (and take comfort in the fact) that we will never, ever be?
I’m not entirely sure, but I truly want to believe that there is, and that it’s entirely possible for that part to win out over any gut-instinct to be reassured, again and again, that we’re better than others, luckier than others, or just one audition away from having the life that we’ve always wanted - that we deserve.
In its second season, UnREAL took a direct shot at The Bachelor - and society as a whole - by casting a black suitor when the show it draws on has never done the same. But then, in a manner that makes UnREAL so compelling and satisfying to watch - a far cry from the satisfaction felt when watching women throw drinks in each other’s faces and wax poetic about the wrongs done to them - this ‘progressive’ move is milked for all it’s worth, from throwing a tiny, blonde racist (who’s miraculously depicted with just as much humanity as any of the other supporting characters) at the suitor, to calling the police when said suitor drives off in the showrunner’s car, in the hopes that an altercation might give the producers the most topical, juicy footage the show has ever captured.
No action is without an underlying motive on UnREAL, but no motive, in turn, is without its own driving force. It’s a never ending spiral of complexity, of internal battles being won and lost, and to see it all play out in the most gaudy exploitation of all the technological and societal advances we’ve experienced over the past couple of decades just makes the show all the more substantial. It’s an embarrassment of riches, hidden beneath a (quite literal) embarrassment of riches.
One of the most potent, subtle arcs of the season is the way the show illustrates the impact Rachel’s work has on her life (and that her life has on her work).
We witness Rachel (along with Quinn) paint a contestant - a victim of abuse who grew up in the foster system - as a pathological liar, after locking her in a room and treating her in a manner tantamount to psychological abuse.
Watching this contestant, Brandi, lash out in a horrific, visceral way after her ‘mother’ calls her a liar on national television, it’s easy to simply write this off as the first of many ‘despicable’ acts that Rachel and Quinn will orchestrate - in an attempt to passive-aggressively one-up each other - throughout the season.
Episodes later, though, Rachel’s mother re-enters the picture, after the show’s attempt to capture ‘real’ police brutality and racism on camera backfires and sends Rachel into a downward spiral.
She’s been blamed for a lot throughout her life, it turns out, so being rendered completely helpless by a sense of overwhelming guilt isn’t such a huge surprise.
The revelation that Rachel was sexually abused by one of her mother’s patients when she was twelve years old - and that the abuse became Rachel’s weight to bear when her mother ensured that the truth would never come out - draws an instantaneous, shattering connection to the story Rachel imposes on Brandi only weeks earlier.
The devastation of what this cycle of pain has allowed Rachel to perpetrate, though, is nothing compared to the horror of watching her mother assure her, certainly not for the first time, that she will never - could never - be loved: not after what happened to her.
This brings me to Quinn, who might just be one of the most riveting and affecting characters currently on television.
While Rachel’s mother (and her ‘boyfriend’ - emphasis on the quotation marks) literally shove every ounce of pain Rachel has ever felt in her face, all in the name of helping her ‘get better’ but without any real regard for Rachel’s actual wellbeing, Quinn - somehow, through the astounding talents of Constance Zimmer and the writers working on this show - treads that line rarely even seen in the real world: giving someone the reassurance that who they are is okay, while recognising that they need help - real help - and encouraging them to do something about it.
Yes, you’re unstable, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s okay to be sick. But I also want you to be okay.
Part of this reads, quite clearly, as a vacillation between healthy and unhealthy behaviour - embracing both a ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ persona in a schizophrenic-like need to keep Rachel in a state of both constant fear and adoration.
But Quinn King is not a character comprised of pure selfishness and unfeeling machination. She’s been trapped, perhaps by society and perhaps by her own pride, too stubborn to surrender when it means admitting she’s lost. And knowing this, it aches all the more to watch her save Rachel only to shackle her, again and again - to watch her tell her protege (and possibly the person she loves most in the world) to get out while she still can, knowing full well that it’s already far too late.
Perhaps this is the overriding message of the show (if a show this multifaceted can have an overriding message). These are characters who are easy to love, and easy to hate. But they are human beings, propelled forward by their own ignorance and hope and determination and blinding rage, never fully their own person, but never someone else’s, either.
In the penultimate episode of the season, Quinn captures a physical embodiment of this lack of power (and lack of helplessness) after she finds out that she has missed her chance to ever have a child of her own, screaming in utter abject fury as she smashes every camera and flatscreen within her reach.
It’s entirely possible that this has far less to do with Quinn’s fertility than it does with the gut-wrenching line she delivers in the season finale, watching an eliminated contestant return to declare her love for the suitor and have that love reciprocated. ‘True love,’ Quinn sneers, but it seems like it’s the sting of every compromise, every put-down and moment of self doubt that’s twisting her face, and not a callous dismissal. ‘Who gets that?’ The tears escaping her eyes, unbidden, give us a clear enough answer: I won’t. Ever.
But even that level of material devastation can’t put a dint in the show. It will go on and on - until it’s no longer profitable.
I think the real takeaway, though, is that this level of mental and spiritual devastation - inflicted on Quinn (and Rachel, in both different and similar circumstances) for years on end - isn’t enough to destroy these women. After everything they’ve seen and caused and been through themselves, they are still looking after each other: Quinn calling Rachel perfect when every word said to her by every other person in her life has made her feel like she will never be wanted for who she is; Rachel unflinchingly approaching Quinn when the woman is all but broken and every other person is too terrified to even look at her.
People are both far less and far more fragile than we make them out to be, and maybe it wouldn’t be such an impossible feat to make this mental leap when we see someone bitch-slapped or called out or driven to tears on our screens.
There is always a story behind the story. We just have to remember that.
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.