Alex Casey explains how UnREAL, a black comedy set on a fictional reality set, chews on an array of complex issues like no other television show right now. Please note that the following is absolutely riddled with spoilers.
I don’t even reckon Galileo himself could have predicted that The Bachelor, the same reality franchise responsible for one hellish ‘Party Gollum’ impression, would also spawn one of the smartest, darkest fictional comedies on television right now. “Impossible,” he would say. “What’s a television?” he would also say.
Sure, discourse around The Bachelor may have inadvertently opened our eyes to issues of racism, sexism and fartism culture, but UnREAL gets even heavier than Art Green’s kettle-bells. Created by legendary genius and ex-Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and set behind the scenes of a fictional Bachelor-style reality show, UnREAL isn’t afraid to unravel this jumbled rat king world of the problematic.
Many of the UnREAL characters are twisted, corrupt and amoral, the perfect reflections of the most troubling parts of modern society. It’s gripping, fearless and essential viewing. Yes, it’s available exclusively on Lightbox and yes, they sponsor this section. But I am as earnest as Mike Puru right now, holding out a single rose in these wild winds of shill.
Here are all the times that UnREAL got very, very real.
A particularly raw issue in a country where the police attended 105,000 domestic violence cases last year, and one in three women experience violence from a partner in their lifetime. UnREAL frames the act of domestic violence through a late night confrontation where Jeremy assaults Rachel in a costume truck. She is left sobbing beneath the twinkling Everlasting dresses, too afraid to tell anyone about what happened.
The next day Rachel brazenly circles and photographs her bruises, only to later delete the evidence. As the assault triggers her mental health issues, she begins to lose her strength to fight back and becomes even more vulnerable to spiraling beyond control. She snaps at colleagues, goes dangerously rogue on set and pushes away those closest to her. This is the everyday aftermath for survivors, the side of violence rarely seen.
Perhaps the most eerily prophetic television moment since Mr Robot had to delay their finale out of respect for the victims of the Virginia shootings, UnREAL served up a chillingly real cliffhanger last week. Determined to create a ratings boost, Rachel reported a stolen vehicle to the police after the Darius, a black quarterback and suitor, took an Everlasting car for a joyride.
With two black men in the front of an expensive car, and two drunk white women in the back, there was a growing sense of dread that things were about to end very, very badly when the cops showed up. Why wouldn’t that feeling be there, after the countless instances of black men being shot by police in just the past few months?
In a moment that could have been absolutely ripped from the headlines, the police gun down Romeo without blinking. Just one day later, a black man in Florida was shot lying down with his arms in the air. In just one breathtaking scene, UnREAL broke through the fictional bubble and presented a crucial current issue front and centre. It’s worth noting that, in the US, this would have gone out on the channel Lifetime – largely a white and middle-aged audience.
Is this what a feminist looks like?
Season one of UnREAL is all about Rachel trying desperately to reconcile her feminist values with working on a television show that is built on the foundations of double standards and misogyny. I can relate, as a feminist who has long championed The Bachelor NZ but has also rocked myself to sleep wondering what it all means. Is it possible that a vehicle built around patriarchal values could also contain pockets of female agency and empowerment?
Whatever you reckon, there’s no denying that UnREAL’s feminist power comes from the two leads, Rachel and Quinn. The show allows them to be as flawed, confused, determined and powerful as they want, the pair both jostling for authoritative positions in a dynamic often only seen on screen between men. Even the Everlasting contestants, however typecast the producers try to make them, fail to conform and create their own mini-narratives of rebellion.
In short, UnREAL reminds women that we can’t all be wifeys – and that’s totally okay.
The show that “gets” mental health
Rachel’s battle with mental health is woven throughout the series, as Shiri Appelby delivers a nuanced performance as a sufferer of Borderline Personality Disorder. Described by The Huffington Post as “the show that finally gets mental illness right”, UnREAL begins with Rachel’s on-camera nervous breakdown as something of a punchline.
As the show progresses and she unravels more and more under the weight of her work, she is visited by her therapist mother. “The reason you are so good at what you do, the manipulation… that’s the disease.”
Showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro knows the impact of reality production on mental health better than anyone else, after threatening to commit suicide to get off the set of The Bachelor. “I was so damaged. I never wanted to see Hollywood again,” she told attn:. The show grapples with suicide, eating disorders and PTSD, all under the ironic gaze of the onsite therapist who exists solely to exploit them for entertainment.
Is reality television artistically atrocious?
There was a moment in the latest season of The Bachelorette where Jojo returns from a great date, glowing and beaming from ear to ear. She gushes to producers about how well it went, cut short by them handing her a gossip mag full of slanderous stories written by her ex-boyfriend. Her face crumples and she bursts into tears. It was great TV and I felt very bad about watching it.
UnREAL is more than happy to wallow in a space that makes viewers feel very, very bad. It shows us the great lengths that story producers go to in order to get a soundbite, whether it’s Rachel drinking with an Everlasting evictee till dawn, or Madison forcing a tragic memory from a woman who lost her husband in a car accident.
As Sarah Shapiro recalls in The New Yorker, her job working on The Bachelor was to get contestants to “open up, and to give them terrible advice, and to deprive them of sleep.” She describes it as “complicated manipulation through friendship,” a dynamic which we see between the story producers telling snake-like lies to their assigned women without fail. It may be artistically atrocious, but dwelling on why we keep watching sure makes for great television.
Chew over the big issues today with UnREAL exclusively on Lightbox, with new episodes arriving every Tuesday night:
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