Gods and Bachelors: On Lifetime's "UnREAL"




Dear television,DEARTVLOGO

A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, I got a text from my friend Rachel. It read, “I forgot to tell you guys to watch UnREAL on Lifetime! Your Bachelor-loving hearts will enjoy.” UnREAL — a ten-episode drama about the lives of the producers on a reality competition that looks suspiciously like ABC’s The Bachelor — had been on my radar for a minute, thanks in part to recent raves from Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin, but also because a show about the producers and production assistants that run the Bachelor franchise is something I have wanted for a long time. I don’t mean this in a vague, that’d-be-nice kind of way. I mean that, over the past several years, I have repeatedly requested out loud to my television set that someone develop a show about the weird, be-hoodied elves who make the magic of reality TV happen. UnREAL is literally a manifestation of one of my greatest TV wishes. (If this says anything about my ability to make things happen just by saying them out loud, then get ready for Drake’s Oscar speech in 2023.) For I do have a Bachelor-loving heart, and it does indeed love UnREAL.

I don’t go all the way back with the Bachelor franchise. We started watching because we kind of sort of knew a contestant a few seasons ago. I had preconceptions about the show, and for the first several episodes, I wasn’t necessarily sold. That is, until I saw this:

I’ve watched a lot of television, a lot of hard-to-watch television, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything this uncomfortable on the small screen. It is perfect. This song, man — the dude’s confidence, his deranged Muppet voice, those improvised couplets, the I’m-being-clever look when he says “Average Joe,” that out-of-control key change at the end, that look of light panic on her face, the decision to keep going after the long pause between first and second verses, the decision to sing at all! Ricky Gervais couldn’t dream of putting something this cringeworthy on TV. “Yeah, that’s pretty intense stuff,” he says at the end. No kidding!

I was hooked. This franchise is repulsive. It’s juiced with misogyny, it’s hetero-normative to the point of being hetero-psychotic, it encourages women to humiliate themselves in public, it sets rock bottom standards for male emotional availability, and, perhaps worst of all, it’s encouraging generations of TV-viewers to overuse the phrase, “one hundred percent.” But I can’t stop. TV this mortifying can be alienating, but, if you give over to it, it can be absolutely gripping. It’s like watching a car crash; or maybe it’s like being in a car crash; or maybe it’s like causing a car crash. Regardless, you have to ask: who’s at the wheel?

Television series, virtually alone among the plastic arts, have a position we all agree to call “Creator.” If you stop for a second and think about it, this is totally bananas. Middlemarch doesn’t say “created by” on the cover; Martin Scorsese has never “created” a film; Kara Walker is not the “creator” of a giant sugar sphinx. We call these people novelists, directors, sculptors, but, mostly, we call these people artists. In its plainest terms, the Writers Guild of America applies the “created by” credit to the person or people who wrote the original format or “bible” for the show. (In cases where there is no bible, the tag applies to the person who wrote the pilot.) To some extent, the creator tag is meant to assign ultimate, original authorship for a product with many authors. It also often lends some well-earned, compensatory grandiosity to what can end up being — if Creation leads to Showrunning, as it often does — a managerial position.

But I also wonder how much the “creator” is a pre-emptively defensive honorific more about the medium than its messenger. While we’re 15 or more years into the era of television’s respectability, the move to call it “art” is still a vaguely controversial one in some sectors. I know, because I teach film studies to college students for a living, that even film itself can still be subject to a chronic, kneejerk condescension, especially by students who don’t want to admit that movies aren’t just movies. To acknowledge film as art is to acknowledge a responsibility toward it as a viewer, and this isn’t always something we want to feel at the movies. This is, of course, doubly true for television, a medium we often engage compulsively at the end of a long day or as a way to delay the start of one. As the archive of Dear Television comments sections can attest, TV is a late bloomer in the taking-it-seriously-as-art sweepstakes. To suggest, then, that the author of a television series is constitutively something maybe more than an artist — a controlling, benevolent intelligence, the molder and shaper of life, the Creator — is to imbue the task of televisual story-telling with a dignity that’s historically been hard to come by otherwise.

But when we think of creators in the present moment, or at least those aspiring toward art, we think of those solitary progenitors of the HBO era, the Chase-Weiner-Kohan showrunner-auteurs who are written as the geniuses of the new Golden Age of TV in all the annals. But preceding this era, and perhaps even preparing the ground for its emergence, is the scummy, exploitative, tooth-rotting emergence of reality TV. We watch these shows, but we know they’re bad for us as humans. To see Walter White behaving badly, perhaps even taking pleasure in his crimes, is to retain plausible deniability. Yes, it was fun to see Walt and Jesse cook all that meth and engineer all those murders, but look at that cinematography! Dig that moral complexity!

We have no such curtain of respectability when we watch reality TV. The veneer of anthropological virtue — it’s a laboratory for human behavior! — disappeared when Puck came on the scene, and that’s to assume that this type of leering, voyeuristic anthropology could ever be ethical anyway. The shows provide us with outs if we want them — we’re watching people discover their inner strength, their capacity to find commonalities across racial/cultural/social divides, the possibility of true love — but, almost at the level of text, these are weak excuses. We are watching because people, if you put them in front of a camera, can do extraordinarily embarrassing things. When I was fly-ing / In a helicopter / Over this amaaazing city… These are not new observations — from The Office to HBO’s Cinema Verite, there are plenty of fictions about the raw deal of agreeing to be watched — but while the folks onscreen have been our focus, the folks behind the camera have long escaped our view. We have gazed upon this unholy creation but infrequently upon its godlike Creators. The producers on the ground improvising narrative, feeding lines, emotionally manipulating and seemingly actually befriending the unfortunate contestants on America’s reality shows are the geniuses of a different age of television. They do this for us, but we do not know them.

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Two seasons ago, on The Bachelorette, Andi Dorfman (a former Bachelor contestant who’d left the show of her own accord only to be rewarded/punished with a whole season unto herself) and her three remaining suitors were given the devastating news that a former contestant had died in an accident. The revelation was set up as a TV-ready moment, with Chris Harrison, the show’s host, positioned as if he were telling his children that he and your mother would be getting a divorce, but no it’s not your fault. It was an interesting moment inasmuch as our players’ reactions had to be at least in some small part genuine. It was staged for the cameras, but those cameras were positioned to capture a rare unstaged emotion. As soon as the news drops and the tears fall, however, a new subspecies of television personality becomes immediately visible. One suitor embraces our heroine, but everyone else in the room turns tearfully to the encroaching swarm of ponytailed, headphone-equipped, un-made-up producers standing in the room. They hold and cry to each other. They share the devastation. They are the interviewers in the talking head spots, the camera operators, the deliverers of riddles. They are confidantes, here, friends, even. There was an intimacy to this sequence for us, a rare moment of being acutely, guiltily aware of our own voyeurism while watching a show that is only ever nakedly voyeuristic. This was the reality of TV we were seeing, and its key were these offscreen, now onscreen figures. It’s these shadow-dwellers who are the protagonists of Lifetime’s UnREAL.

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If it’s not yet clear that I think this is a stupendous idea for a television drama: I think this is a stupendous idea for a television drama. But, more than that, it’s also executed exactly right. The brilliant thing about UnREAL, to me, is that it is not a satire, not really. Reality TV is ripe for parody, and it is already a frequent target. (Kroll Show is probably the best of the genre’s lampooners, though Hulu’s Burning Love is more specific to this franchise.) Instead of satirizing the insane foibles of a group of cruddy people doing a preposterous thing, the show takes these people seriously, to a point. While there are elements of that’s-so-true mockery about the format of Everlasting, and fans of The Bachelor will laugh at a number of perfectly warped details, the grist of the narrative drama is the workplace behind the scenes. That workplace can get a little soapy, but, even including some overlapping love triangles and a recent suicide, the melodrama pales in comparison to that of the shows in the Shondaland empire, for instance. (Because of its focus behind the camera, my one complaint so far is that, apart from the show’s star Adam, the onscreen participants are presented primarily in caricature. Would it have been so hard to at least flesh out a Roger Sterling-meets-Howdy Doody, Chris Harrisonesque host?) UnREAL is a show about what it is to create something like The Bachelor, what it is to have one’s work be the management and guidance of other people’s emotions, what toll that takes on those producers, what toll it takes on the participants, and, by implication, what toll it takes on us. The show seems less concerned with mocking the elements of reality TV that we see every week than it is in making real drama from the elements we never see.

The show’s closest relative, in this regard, is Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived, much-beloved Sports Night, about the writers, producers, and hosts of a sports news program modeled closely on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Like that show, UnREAL gives us the frisson of privileged gossip and inside baseball. We all know The Bachelor is a fantasy construction, but how, exactly, is it constructed. The shows work on their own, but they work best if we are already intimately familiar with the cultural product being anatomized, drawing connections for ourselves between the visible world and the forces playing behind it. But this isn’t just a similarity of subject matter. Creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro — who spent a number of seasons as a producer on The Bachelor — cannily lift Thomas Schlamme’s walk-and-talk camerawork, which wittily contrasts with the faux-verite/Vaseline lensing of the show within the show, and the characters speak with the fast, well-turned, logorrhea of Sorkinians.

At a more fundamental level, however, UnREAL shares something with Sports Night that it also shares with everything from The West Wing to Mad Men to Breaking Bad: it’s a show about work and competence. These workplace dramas are interesting because the workplaces themselves are interesting — reality TV show, Oval Office, advertising agency, meth lab — but also because transcendent skill is interesting to watch in practice. While skewering and diagnosing our desire as viewers to see real people embarrass themselves on TV, UnREAL also plays in to our desire to see fictional people who are uncannily good at their jobs: Don Draper’s pitch meetings, C.J. Cregg’s handling of the White House correspondents, and now Shiri Appleby’s Rachel Goldberg, getting her contestants to walk willingly into the traps she sets.

As has been pointed out, though, the job that Rachel, her producer Quinn (the perfectly-cast Constance Zimmer), and the other little minions do is a shitty one. To do it well requires the producer to have an extraordinary ability to empathize and connect with other people and then to distort that ability. Rachel, we see from the first moments, is preternaturally good at this, and that’s where the show’s primary conflict rests. The better you are at understanding and seeing humanity in others, the better you can be at exploiting them. Rachel’s deep soulful humanity allows her to access levels of mundane inhumanity most of us couldn’t even imagine. She is a duplicitous and vengeful god.

It’s easy, if you are not a watcher of The Bachelor franchise, to see all of this as parody. But I am a watcher of The Bachelor, and UnREAL, for all of its exaggerations, hits close to home, not as parody but as ambivalent critique. In his essay on this show, Mark Harris wrote, “watch four episodes of a reality-competition show in a row and I think that, with surprisingly few exceptions, you will want to die.” UnREAL is a show about why you feel that way, and it’s not hedging about that fact. Indeed, whether this is a flaw in the show’s structure or an intentional shock tool, the only time we ever really glimpse complexity in the contestants is when Rachel has triggered a psychic breakdown. That makes the show a blunter instrument, but it also makes for a queasily postmodern viewing experience. When we watch The Bachelor, we disapprove of this behavior, but we’re watching a show that sanctions and provokes it. We think we are good people, but we revel in this bad thing. We can’t have it both ways, but we do. The more outrageous the manipulation onscreen in UnREAL, the more difficult it has to be for us to reconcile it with our own entertainment on another channel. It’s not didactic; it’s interactive.

Our avatar for that queasiness is Appleby’s Rachel. She acts, but she sees the consequences of those actions with our eyes. After I watched the first episode and texted my friend back, she wrote, “I love Shiri Appleby and her sad sad eyes!” Those eyes — eternally tear-filled, softened on command, sharply perceptive, guilty, devilish, ravenous, proud. It’s one of the show’s cleverest conceits that its protagonists are spectators, too, and so Rachel’s eyes are where the action happens. Appleby is amazing at embodying — in those telling eyes, in her slouch that turns effortlessly into a pounce — the way we feel about this process, wanting to be good but wanting that thing called “good TV” maybe more. Being good can’t beat being good at this job.

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So UnREAL is structured around this devil’s bargain, and the particular devil making the deal is Zimmer’s Quinn, Rachel’s mentor, who’s got quite a set of eyes of her own. Zimmer could easily play Goldberg’s older sister, and, especially in her most dastardly moments, this resemblance turns Quinn into Rachel’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Where Rachel’s eyes are worried, pliable, open, Quinn’s are hard, focused. Their relationship, at least at the moment we meet them, is no longer about teaching the craft. Rachel is already a genius of some sort or another in the pilot. Rather, it’s about Quinn teaching Rachel about what virtue there might be in this corrosive virtuosity. (The virtue for us is that we get to watch these two women operate like total bosses for an hour a week.) The producers, Rachel especially, produce flimsy rationalizations by rote, and they can barely restrain their own laughter when they utter them aloud. So Quinn is not concerned with showing Rachel Everlasting’s social mission. The upside of being good at this job is control.

The third episode of the series ends with Quinn and Rachel on a couch by the pool, watching a Rachel-engineered catfight unfold. The episode had focused on Quinn’s status as the mistress of the show’s creator and on Rachel’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a psychiatrist who wants to treat her. Sitting on the couch, Quinn tells Rachel, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re home.” It’s a scene about alternative family, about comfort, about mutual respect. That Rachel is “home” means she’s trapped in this horrifying space, but it also means she belongs and is accepted there. But the thing I liked most about this scene wasn’t this up-front metaphorical communication; it was the fact that this conversation took place sitting on a couch, watching Everlasting just like us. Spectators and participants, agents of our desires and producers of those desires, creators and inhabitants of that creation. This show is about them and it is about us and it is about the thin film that separates. Why am I sitting on my couch, laughing at this woman on TV debasing herself for a vacuous frat guy? What’s wrong with me? There’s nothing wrong you. You’re home.

UnREAL isn’t primarily invested in condemning this state of affairs so much as it is in acknowledging it and asking questions about it. This isn’t a jeremiad, and it’s not a Michael Haneke film (at least I don’t think it is). That’s not because the show doesn’t perceive the behavior it dramatizes to be gross, but because it’s not that interesting to scold your characters for being morally bankrupt. That’s not how drama works, and UnREAL knows a lot about DRAMA. Rachel shows up in the pilot wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. This is a joke so obvious it’s not that obvious. What does it mean to be a feminist and participate in this kind of catastrophic gender spectacle? Is that even possible? Is this Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminism,” or is it just bad feminism? As Mark Harris notes, reality TV of this ilk feels wrong, but where do we locate that wrongness? For a show about who’s literally responsible for TV like this, responsibility remains an open question on UnREAL. If this series ends with Quinn firing a pistol at the screen a la The Great Train Robbery, I’ll be delighted, but I don’t know if that’s where we’re going. In Greek mythology, the gods can be reprehensible, but so can their mortal foils. That’s just how things work: the gods sitting on their couch, watching the narratives they set into motion play out.

Pretty intense stuff,

Phil.

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