UnREAL, the Lifetime series whose first season ended this month, is a terrible, terribly wonderful, amazing maybe, television show. It’s a mise-en-abyme, a meta-feedback loop, a mind fuck, a mad indictment of celebrity culture that happens to be part of the celebrity culture under indictment. The show is to reality television what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was to slaughterhouses: an exposé of how your sausage gets made. But, the show is presented on Lifetime, a subsidiary of A&E and a channel with its own stable of tawdry reality television series like Dance Moms, Wife Swap, Little Women, Prison Wives and their latest, Little Dancing Swapping Prison Mothers. So it’s more like if The Jungle had been written in ground beef patties and served for lunch.
A handsome bachelor and a titty parade of camera-ready contestants, marching to the same brassy anthem of fame or infamy, love or at least facsimile. These are the foot soldiers of Everlasting, the reality dating show the making of which is the central concern of UnREAL. Against them are marshalled the crew. Behind it, the crew, fighting under the banner of Good Television. Just out of frame, the puppet master producers and the journeymen crew who foment and capture the unfolding drama and construct the sprawling Reality Industrial Complex, a favela of film trailers with bunk beds, dollies, steadicams, earpieces, and conflicted moralities. These are co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s people, for she was once among them as a producer for The Bachelor and fittingly UnREAL mostly concerns itself with the ethical tar pits in which two of these producers, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) an angular acidic showrunner and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) a conflicted recovering feminist with mental health issues, find themselves foundering. Sympathetic, they are not. Quinn’s the doberman; Rachel’s the cat. The girls are the mice.
Like The Bachelor, which so transparently serves as inspiration it’s like someone left the roman-a-clef unlocked, Everlasting is not so much a reflection of reality as it is a cynical construction of one, made out of spit, grip tape, and lust for ratings. People using people using people. Sartre’s Joseph, Inez and Estelle have a rather plain sitting room in the Second Empire style. The players of Everlasting have a vacuously beautiful estate, with flagstone walls, a water fountain, a pool and well-watered driveway.
One of the operating assumptions of Everlasting, by which we the viewers and the crew themselves justify our pleasure and their actions, is that the contestants know what they’ve signed up for. This phrase, uttered repeatedly throughout the episodes, serves as a moral inoculation against even the most manipulative behavior. Most of the bad behavior comes at the hands of Rachel, not simply because she’s the protagonist but also because she’s mad good at being bad. It is Rachel who encourages and exploits the anorexia of Anna, big-eyed Aryan doll woman played by Johanna Braddy for the purposes of drama. Rachel who dredges up the history of domestic abuse that is the sordid burden of Mary, another lithe blonde thing with the highly tuned nervous system of a greyhound. Rachel who trades on her own moral qualms to befriend and ultimately betray nearly every one of the women contestants on the show. Gertrude Shapiro takes pains to make plain the pains Rachel feels. She shuts softly her watery eyes. She takes meds. She hugs her mom, who frankly kind of sucks. She likes to be spooned. She masturbates to adorable videos of her and her former fiancé, babyface Jeremy (Craig Berko). Regrets, she’s had a few but too few to mention and apparently not enough to change her behavior. On the rare occasion she does feel some compunction, it is Quinn who comforts her with a brusque, “They know what they signed up for.” In other words, has forgiven your sins. Go in Peace. Clearly it is in Quinn’s best interest to allay the concerns of her foot soldier; of course, both Quinn and Rachel know that particular excuse holds no water. Consent relieves no one of their obligation not to inflict pain and suffering on other people. The responsibility lies, not with the victim, even if he or she consents, but with the victimizer.
If I thought otherwise, UnREAL would be a blast to watch. But as someone who doesn’t, it’s like reliving my parents divorce, 44 minutes at a time. In the Everlasting hell of UnREAL, people are abjectly crummy to other people. There are no good guys just winners and losers. Plenty of terrifically enjoyable shows feature venal, difficult people. Actually, television land is almost exclusively inhabited by ass-faces and jerk-offs. What turns UnREAL unwatchable is that, as has been widely reported, it basically gets everything right. In real life, reality show contestants, blinkered by the possibility of fame, regularly sign onerous contracts from which there is no recourse. They are supplied booze and half-truths. As in UnREAL, there is an on-set psychologist who, turning the rod of Asclepius into a poisonous cudgel, feeds intel into a producers’ ears via a little wireless transmitter. Reality and unreality blur into nightmare dusk but, read the small print, they have surrendered their rights for real.
The discomforting sadness of watching UnREAL isn’t the art-house sadness of, say, Better Call Saul or the edifying melancholic sadness of a Sony Bravia ad. (Those goddamn Superballs get me every time.) It’s documentary sadness, not narrative feature sadness. StoryCorps sadness. It’s real sadness, at least it is for me. Because, even though on Lifetime this suffering is fictionalized, it takes only a click of the channel to see the frame zoomed in upon just a bit more, cutting out the construct, to know that at some Los Angeles mansion — 2351 Kanan Road, Agoura Hills, CA to be exact — this misery is being played out over and over again unchronicled and very real for those who feel it.
Happily, or unhappily, as the season progresses and the number of girls is whittled down, the acute sense of malaise eases. Partially this is because in order to survive contestants must “play the game” so as the season wears on — both Everlasting’s and UnREAL’s — the remaining cast members shed their victimhood, gaining manipulative agency as they go along. The women connive, inveigh, inveigle, jockey, bully, bray, scrum, scramble, and scratch. They are a thesaurus for bad behavior. Especially in the back five episodes, now that they’re all a bunch of miserable crumb-bums, one doesn’t feel as much sorrow for the suffering of the contestants. Of course, upon reflection, one realizes the metamorphosis of victim into perpetrator is perhaps the most unkind victimization of all.
Inevitably, as the crew comes to outnumber the cast, the focus of the show shifts from their misdeeds to their own struggles. Quinn, it turns out, is the cuckolding cuckquean of a drug-addled producer. Rachel finds herself caught in a sticky situation between Adam, the bachelor-in-question, and Jeremy, a baby-faced DP. Unpredictably, Quinn has no qualms playing her Rachel like a zither. Slowly outrage gives way to pity. Could one really be mildly swoon-y for Rachel and feel, for Quinn, an approximation of sympathy? But beware, UnREAL has cast you, dear reader, as the villain. That’s what in magic is called the prestige. The crummy things Rachel and Quinn do at the beginning of the season never go away. It’s not like there’s a moment of reckoning — though there is one great death scene that should be a reckoning, the machine can digest anything — after which Rachel and Quinn are penitent sinners. Especially if one binge-watches the season, as one does, that time when Rachel betrayed Faith occurs literally an hour before Rachel performs a modest act of altruism for her. So what to do with the feelings? Either one becomes an amnesiac or one becomes embittered and uncharitable. Either way, UnREAL calls for some act of self-blinding.
So no. I did not enjoy watching UnREAL on a visceral level. But I can not say I do not love it on a deeper level. UnREAL is using fiction to expose the reality of the fiction of erstwhile reality. I guess why my reaction to it — and the reaction of many people who watch it — is markedly more intense than if it were either clear fiction or documentary. They’re messing with some cosmic ontological shit. Naturally, the experience is unsettling. It’s a headache and a revelation at once and it could be an important show. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro could be the new Upton Sinclair. At this point, the effect of UnREAL will have is still unclear. Chris Harrison, the host of The Bachelor, calls UnREAL terrible, which is a promising sign. But neither Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, nor Sarah Gertrude Shapiro contend that the show is meant to dissuade viewers from reality television. In fact, in public statements, they explicitly forswear such a motivation and it is easy to see why. It is, after all, a network television program that relies on its object of ridicule for distribution. I get it. And yet, if UnREAL has any intrinsic value beyond what passes for entertainment, surely it must be that it exposes the constellation of human suffering that attends so-called reality television. Is a Trojan Horse still a Trojan Horse if no one opens the door or does it then just become a weird gift no one knows what to do with? We’ll just have to tune in next season, sometime between Wife Swap and Dance Moms to find out. Eh bien, continuons...