‘I’ve Seen Footage’: A Formalist Reading of Unreal EP03 “Mother”

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Any formalist analysis of Unreal will inevitably find itself brushing shoulders with that of postmodernism. This is owed to the very nature of the show’s premise itself. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s show about, well, the making of a show or, to describe it in other terms, the scripted “unscripted” drama behind the deliberate orchestration and institutional production of an ostensibly “unscripted” romance drama presents a number of problems for the ernest critic, to say the least.

Because Unreal is a show-within-a-show, any formalist analysis of Unreal’s set design, cinematography, location choice, lighting, and actor blocking must account for those same choices with relation to that of the “show” upon which Unreal itself centers: the reality-television romance drama Everlasting.

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Within the purview of a typical formalist reading, the focus of evaluation begins and ends at the margins of what is on the screen by the viewer. In the conventional schema of a prime-time serial drama, the camera does not exist as a object of note or even operate as a camera within the world of that drama, but rather assumes the role of an “invisible eye” roving seamlessly within and between scenes so as to induce the viewer’s uninterrupted attention to the unfolding drama itself. Not so with Unreal, or rather, not only so.

A formalist analysis of Unreal’s cinematography and editing is complicated by the fact that we, the audience, are effectively witnessing Unreal, the show itself and Everlasting, the show-within-the show, interpolated within one another and as a result, obfuscating the delineations of “reality” and “fiction” within the text and complicating the otherwise perfunctory question of who is filming what and how in what way is it intended to be seen by whom and subsequently unintended to be seen by whomelse. Have I lost you yet? Welcome to Westworld.

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I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

All joking aside, when viewed with this understanding firmly in mind, the third episode of Unreal’s first season, “Mother,” yields compelling fodder for analysis. The first episode of the season, “Return,” already established the complications of Unreal’s authorial vantage point with Rachel’s titular return to the set of Everlasting, where her humiliation is subsequently filmed at Quinn’s command before being told, “Welcome back to reality, Rachel!”

In “Mother,” the establishing shot of the opening scene is high angle view of the contestants standing at attention in a row, obfuscated by the blurry outline of some obscure adjacent plant. The camera then cuts to another high angle shot, this time obscured by the glass panel balcony of its position and dotted with cameramen and other members of the Everlasting crew, including Rachel and her ex-boyfriend […].

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While the aforementioned meta-complications of the Unreal’s formalist motivations and intentions remain, I assert that this is one of several examples for which the episode itself implicitly teaches the viewer to compartmentalize their understandings of the disparate yet inseparable halves of Unreal’s narrative not only within this episode, but within each subsequent episode of the show’s first season. Shots that would otherwise be unusable b-roll for the purposes of Everlasting, with their shaky camera tracking shots and downcast lighting, exist to frame the level of reality wherein Unreal takes place, whereas the picturesquely composed and well-lit camera shots are contextually coded as the hyper-reality of Everlasting.

No more is this dichotomy of priorities more apparent than in “Mother” than in the mid-episode climax, when Adam and Roger’s intimate hot-tub date with Maya, Anna, and Grace is crashed by the other contestants and transformed into an impromptu pool party.

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Orchestrated by Shia, one of three producers of Everlasting working under Executive Producer Quinn, as a way of gaining footage during Quinn’s absence to earn her favor, her efforts are inevitably deflated when Rachel returns to the set following her confrontation with her parents. “I’m getting great footage,” Shia protests, to which Rachel replies, “Oh what, with this music blasting? Because we can’t use it, we can’t edit around, it so shut it down.” These criticisms are further corroborated by Quinn herself upon returning to the set and observing the footage. For us, the viewer, the music of the pool party exists as a diegetic aspect of the episode itself, while for the producers of Everlasting (i.e. the main characters of the drama of Unreal) the music exists as a non-diegetic element which complicates the labor of constructing the show’s “reality” and thus, is deemed unusable and immaterial to the narrative of Everlasting.

These account for less than a handful of fascinating observations one might glean from a formalist reading of Unreal. Subsequent readings would no doubt yield even more revelations with regards to the dynamic of the crew and contestants, as well as the interpersonal conflicts between the main characters and the “real” world external to that of Everlasting’s set.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

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