As a popular media text and a unit of cultural currency, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Unreal has always been an ideologically-driven drama. The crux of the show’s premise as a show-within-show is Rachel Goldberg’s (Shiri Appleby) re-entrance into the tacitly toxic and socially manipulative workplace of a reality television production, and the embattled gender politics which accompany that reentry. Though the series has never been shy in its overt commentary on how the real-life equivalents to Unreal’s production, Everlasting, prey on the hopes, insecurities, and untreated neuroses of its contestants and crew the sixth episode of Unreal, titled “Fly,” by far is the show’s most explicit, and heartbreaking, example of this.
The episode opens on the morning following the conclusion of the previous episode “Truth,” with Mary Newhouse (Ashley Scott), a single mother and survivor of a prior abusive marriage, having won the opportunity for a family play-date and subsequent romantic dinner rendezvous with Everlasting’s suitor of the season, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma). While looking over the footage of Mary’s preparation for the day and coordinating shooting logistics for the date, an exchange occurs two minutes into the episode between Rachel, Quinn, and Chet Wilson (Craig Bierko), Everlasting’s executive producer and Quinn’s partner / lover.
Chet: That is so sad.
Chet: Well, look at her she’s ancient. Tired, sad, saggy sack. who wants that?
Quinn: She’s a year younger than me, asshole.
Rachel: I think she’s really hot.
Quinn: You know? Mary should stay in the game. At least it would be a surprise. Not another tired, ancient season where a bikini model wins again.
Rachel: You know, if Mary could win this, that would be amazing. That could completely up-end the entire societal point of view on ageism.
Chet: Not gonna happen.You know why? Because no guy wants that when he can have that. Grandma’s going home this week, guaranteed.
Quinn: Really? There’s not one man in the universe who would pick a strong, intelligent, slightly older woman over a bimbo with a sexy accent?
Rachel: No, you’re wrong. He absolutely could pick her. He’s not as shallow as you think.
Chet: Never gonna happen.
Unreal has never shied away from portraying the skewed expectations and tumultuous power dynamic between women in the workplace and their male counterparts but this conversation, perhaps more than any other time in the show’s run up to this point, foregrounds how the toxicity of the male gaze and ageism combine to create a series of intractable obstacles for women to overcome in positions of professional power.
As the audience, we are primed to understand that Chet and Quinn’s bet has less to do with their own respective egos, but with the possibility of what Rachel describes as, “completely up-ending the entire societal point of view on ageism.” There’s more at stake here than just the outcome of reality television show. Through her comment, Rachel subscribes to the “Hypodermic Needle” model of media effects, proposing that Everlasting‘s depiction of a middle-aged unwed mother marrying into upper-class British society would act as a one-to-one conduit in reframing the viewing audience’s assumptions of who can be attractive to whom at what point in their lives. It’s interesting to see Rachel’s quiet resolve in believing that her work on Everlasting, despite at one point in a moment of duress describing the show as “Satan’s asshole,” can contribute even a modicum of good in the world.
However, like so many of Everlasting production crew’s best laid plans, this one too bears strange and terrible fruit.
Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!