I wrote before in my initial analysis and recap of the first episode of Unreal, “Return,” I compared the house which serves as the setting of the reality television show Everlasting to that of an abattoir; the show’s contestants, sows being bred for slaughter-by-humiliation; the lenses of the show’s cameras to the mouths of threshers being fed the viscera of human pain, hope, vulnerability, and neurosis in order to transform them into the digestible pulp of fantasy. I could never have imagined that I would read anything that would darken my impressions of the film’s premise more than it was already. So when I say that after reading Heidi Penzhorn and Margriert Pitout’s essay, “A critical-historical genre analysis of reality television” I was left shaken by the author’s conclusions, you have an idea of just how much darker and insidious the implications of reality television as a genre are.
Per Penzhorn and Pitout’s argument, the semantic and syntactic origins of the hybrid genre of reality television are rooted by two guiding vectors. The first was the television series Candid Camera, created by producer Allen Funt, which aired from 1947 to 2014. The second, the origin of the term “reality television” itself, was invented by proxy of the journalistic coverage of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the third president of Egypt, on October 6, 1981. As Tom Shales wrote in his piece “The Caution and the Fear” for the Washington Post, “Once more, live, global, reality television unified the nation in nightmare.” That the essential ur-text of one of the most prolific television formats of the late 20th to early 21st century can be found in a television program born out of retrofitting the post-WII anxieties of a nascent surveillance state into fodder for pop-idolatry, and that the very term of the genre itself is inseparable from the mass information consumption of an assassination should chill any person’s resolve to seek pleasure through its content.
Nevertheless, this historical framing is a helpful lens through which to elucidate and unpack the semantic and syntactic conventions of the reality television genre at large, exemplified through the fifth episode of the first season of Unreal, titled “Truth.” As codified by Penzhorn and Pitout, the four genre conventions associated with reality television— the focus on “ordinary” people, voyeurism, audience participation, and the attempt to simulate real life are on full display throughout the course of the episode. As is the case with every episode of Unreal, “Truth” opens with a fairly staid introduction to an episode of Everlasting before promptly subjecting the audience to a heel-twist transition. The semantics of the Everlasting in the form of a luxurious home, elaborate competitive rituals, idyllic settings framed by picturesque cinematography, romantic music and fanciful SFX co-mingle with that of Unreal’s semantic signifiers as a workplace drama. The bustle of activity, the unglamorous yet simultaneously savvy decor of the so-called “office” (i.e. the set of Everlasting), etc. Unreal is a drama about the making of a reality television show which itself adopts many of the aesthetic conventions of said genre into its own, exposing the inherent amorphousness of the form and the inherent porosity of its parameters.
Rachel is established as the show’s protagonist, and consequently its “every-woman” or “regular” person, from the show’s outset. Voyeurism is writ into the show on each of its multi-faceted layers, with the audience acting as both a witness to the subordinate drama of Everlasting’s plot and the primary meta-drama of Unreal. Audience participation may seem non-existent, what with this viewing of the series existing essentially in hindsight of the show’s moment of ongoing prime-time airing, but in fact is present through multiple forms both apparent and subtle. When Adam apologizes for the release of a sex tape at the end of “Truth,” he is not apologizing to us, the viewer of Unreal, but the audience of Everlasting who exist as ordinary people within the world of Unreal. As for us, though we may not be able to interact with and comment on the show in real-time, the discourse surrounding Unreal and the study of how it subverts and plays into the conventions and expectations of reality television persists (as is evidence by the very existence of this blog series). Finally, the attempt to simulate real-life is practically the slogan of Unreal as a whole. Everlasting and Unreal are both playing to these expectations, albeit in service of two divergent yet complementary forms of gratification.
This ultimately reveals the syntactic meaning behind the show’s semantic exterior, a strange hyper-real form of “Cinéma vérité” wherein the audience is tasked to ask what, if anything, is real about reality television? And what, if anything, can we learn about ourselves through its consumption and dissection?
Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!