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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