A Smile, or a Show of Teeth? the Institutional Utility of Unreal’s Biting Darkness

smile.JPGIt can be difficult to grasp why the Lifetime Network would green-light the production of a show like Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Unreal. After all, what would a network known for its made-for-TV love stories and reality show dramas in the form of  Little Women: LA, Bring It!, Project Runway, all targeted at a predominantly female demographic aged 25-54 conceivably want with Unreal, a series which mercilessly vivisects each and every single one of those formats and, by proxy, the women who view them?

However, in the case of the second episode of Unreal’s first season, titled “Relapse,” the show’s institutional utility to the network is unmistakable when contextualizing the show’s premise within the continuum of the channel’s past and immediate future.

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When Lifetime was first established in 1984 as a result of Hearst/ABC’s Daytime and Viacom’s Lifetime Medical Television merger, the channel was plagued with middling ratings and viewership, owed primarily to a miscommunication of the channel’s brand as an explicitly, and exclusively, religious station. The network subsequently hired Patricia Fili as head of programming to rehabilitate Lifetime’s image, pivoting from explicit conservatism and refocusing on shows that afforded attention to quote-unquote, “women’s issues.” Such shows manifested in the form of Made-for-TV romance dramas and talk shows, a move which, while cultivating a thriving demographic of built-in female viewers, spurned viewers that existed outside of that demographic for a perception of being staid and too safe.

Again, Lifetime found themselves in need of a re-orientation, though nowhere near as radical as their earlier network-wide re-branding. During the mid-to-late aughts, Lifetime began making a push to incorporate more ostensibly “unscripted” shows in the way of Dance Moms, America’s Supernanny, Project Runaway, and its subsequent off-shoot, Project Accessory. This move paid significant dividends in the form of reliable viewership, though it was not without its setbacks in the form of Roseanne Barr’s 2011 reality show comeback, Roseanne’s Nuts, and Russian Dolls, a reality drama of eight Russian-American families living in Brighton Beach, New York.

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Which brings us roughly to the state of Lifetime circa 2015. By now, the Network had carved its niche into an arena of “unscripted” television dramas and secured successful gains in viewership and advertising. So, to emphatically reiterate again, just what the hell were they thinking putting Unreal on the air? Put simply, Shapiro and Noxon’s scathing pitch-black show-within-a-show afforded the Network an opportunity to jockey for cultural cachet among a demographic of viewers who prized disaffection with the status quo and irony-laden irreverent humor above all else in their choice of entertainment, as well again attempting to inch out of the prescriptive assumptions that Lifetime’s programming was for women ages 25 to 54 and only women ages 25 to 54.

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“Relapse” offers both of these aforementioned gratifications in ample supply, as does the first episode of Unreal and, presumably, the rest of its first season. Rachel is the perfect surrogate for the show’s target audience, expressing exasperation and disillusionment towards the twisted inner workings behind the saccharine exterior of Everlasting while nevertheless navigating these treacherous conditions in an effort to bend them to her benefit. Likewise, the machinations of Everlasting’s producer Jay to transform one or more of the show’s two black contestants into the season’s quote-unquote “villain” at Quinn’s behest is a clear example of the show’s ability to step outside of the expectations stacked on Lifetime’s other reality show fare and speak “truth” to “power” in how Lifetime’s shows capitalized on stifling, harmful, and retrograde portrayals of race and gender, all while nonetheless indulging in those very same manipulations itself, if only refracted through a meta-fictional lens.

Unreal is, or to be more precise was, Lifetime’s Trojan horse among disaffected millennials and, in terms of ratings, it won in the war for ratings during its first season on-air.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

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‘Plenty More Tears in the Sea’ : Unreal Season One, Ep 01 “Return” Recap

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The first episode of Unreal, “Return,” opens on a shot of an adobe tile rooftop of an idyllic villa mansion cast in the dim glow of a fading sunset. Twinkling chimes plays as a horse-drawn carriage winds around the cobbled walkway of the villa, segueing into a triumphant acoustic guitar interlude as a young black woman is lowered from the carriage on a step-stool.

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Pictured: Shamiqua, portrayed by Christie Laing.

Violin in hand, she cradles the instrument against her shoulder and begins to play a swooning song as she walks towards a young man flanked by a well-dressed attendant. No sooner the moment they exchange pleasantries, a shrill protesting shout cuts through the ambiance of the picturesque meet-cute as if undoing a spell. Something is not quite right here. And that something, it turns out, is the young woman’s name.

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Pictured: Quinn King, portrayed by Constance Zimmer.

“Shamiqua? That’s your girl? That’s the one you said had wife potential? She’s black!”

In this, the first of many moments like it that play out across the next forty minutes, is the crux of Unreal. The brainchild of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer of NBC’s The Bachelor, and writer Marti Noxon, the Lifetime original series functions as both a pitch-black satire of reality television and an incisive meta-drama, a show-within-a-show that unpacks the unsavory motivations which drive its creators to see them to fruition. The protagonists of the first episode are Quinn, the executive producer of the romantic reality show Everlasting, whose chastises the quality of the young Shamiqua and many more to come, and Rachel, field producer for Everlasting and Quinn’s right-hand woman.

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Pictured: Rachel Goldberg, portrayed by Shiri Appleby. Definitely not Nathalie Kelly.

Ostensibly written to function as the audience’s surrogate, Rachel is the calm yet reluctant eye in the center of the storm to come. Of all the faces and characters which consists of the cast and crew of Everlasting, Rachel’s is the most compelling. Hair tied back in a bun, no makeup, a faded ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ shirt under a worn olive-green hoodie—- Rachel couldn’t be more a sore thumb when flanked by the glamorous contestants she is tasked to shepherd if she tried. And yet, she will likely survive all of them by the show’s end. We learn many things about Rachel in this first episode. Her one-time tryst with Jeremy, one of the show’s long-time cameramen, her mysterious emotional breakdown on the set of Everlasting’s previous season which boosted the show’s finale to meteoric heights, a resulting lawsuit and DUI sentence in the aftermath. So, what then exactly, is her reason for being here at all? The explicit reason is simple enough: In order to pay off her exorbitant legal fees related to her combined DUI and Grand Theft Auto charges, Rachel must go back to the only job she has that can provide her with the funds necessary to do that. The implicit reasoning behind her return is far more sinister. Simply put: some part of her enjoys this job, in spite of the physical, mental, and emotional stress it inflicts upon her.

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You see, Rachel is Quinn’s “dragon,” as Quinn herself would describe her. And, as the trope name would suggest, she is one of the secret weapons behind Everlasting’s success. Rachel’s greatest asset to Quinn is her empathetic elasticity, which allows her to gain the confidence of her “girls” and extract their secrets, doling them out as necessary as fodder for the show’s ongoing drama. The audience quickly realizes that the set of Everlasting is no fairy-tale rendezvous, but a heart of darkness through which they peer into and catch glimpses of their own quiet desires and appetites. The house is not a house, but an abattoir. The candidates are not women, at least not in the eyes of the Everlasting’s creators, but sows to be coddled, primed and bred for inevitable slaughter by way of humiliation. The lens of the camera is no lens, but the mouth of a thresher to be fed, transforming the viscera of human trauma into palpable fantasy. And of the many tools that Quinn, the butcher, uses to create this fantasy, Rachel is her ever-trusty scalpel, peeling the contestants away layer by layer until there is nothing left but bone to boil into broth.

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A job well-done.

Knowing all this, the final shot of “Return” is a chilling moment that foreshadows future horrors to come. After being simultaneously lied to and implicitly blackmailed by Quinn to stay close by to see the season through to completion, Rachel takes her end-of-shoot lunch in the control room. Framed by the faces of the Everlasting’s contestants, witness to their not-so-secret iniquities, their foibles, their vices, she reclines back and stares upward, a weary smile peeking at the corners of her mouth.

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This is the face of a woman who has nothing left. The face of a woman who has found what she’s good at. She is Everlasting’s sin-eater, the most invaluable part of Quinn’s operation.

God help us if the day ever comes when she finally realizes the full power of that.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!