‘Who Wants That?’ Patriarchial Ideology and Gendered Resistance in Unreal EP06, “Fly”

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.

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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.

Quinn: What?

Chet: Well, look at her she’s ancient. Tired, sad, saggy sack. who wants that?

Quinn: She’s a year younger than me, asshole.

Chet: Oops.Sorry.

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?

Chet: Nope.

Rachel: No, you’re wrong. He absolutely could pick her. He’s not as shallow as you think.

Chet: Never gonna happen.

Quinn: Okay.

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.

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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.

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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!

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‘Every Other Freckle’: The Semantic and Syntactic Conventions of Unreal EP05 “Truth”

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.


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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.

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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. 

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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!

‘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!

Reasons Why ‘Gargoyles’ Deserves A Live-Action Adaptation

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For over a decade now, the eighties has basically become the strip-mine of popular culture, with Hollywood shilling out massive production budgets and promotional campaigns to appeal to a generation who has just now come of age into the peak of their spending power. These IP’s include, but certainty aren’t limited to,

  • Transformable action figures (Transformers *duh*)
  • Graphic Novel Superheroes (The Avengers, Watchmen, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, X-Men, etc.)
  • Saturday morning cartoons (The Smurfs)
  • Acclaimed children books (The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, Where The Wild Things are, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, etc.)
  • Even action-adventure comedy series’ and perfectly good movies that didn’t need a remake (The A-Team, Red Dawn)
  • And of course the tremulous ghost of things to come (Future Robocop, War Games, and Videodrome remakes, not to mention the absolutely unthinkable,*shudder* an AKIRA adaptation. In NEW YORK.) and I swear if I hear one more back to the future rumor, one more time…

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Let’s Watch Legend of Korra: Season 2 Predictions

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[This post will contain spoilers for the ‘Avatar’ series up until the first episode of Season 2. This goes without saying, but even so. You have been forewarned.]

One of my favorite shows of 2012 was ‘Legend of Korra’, the successor to the Nickelodeon smash-hit series Avatar: The Last Airbender which aired from Spring 2005 to Fall 2008. The series follows the adventures of the eponymous Korra, a seventeen-year old “water bender” and the reincarnation of the previous series’ protagonist Aang.

The Avatar is a human being endowed with the ability to manipulate the forces of nature (Air, Water, Earth, Fire) and acts as a mediating force of balance between not only the separate nations of mankind, but also as the human emissary to the Spirit world. Last season, Korra came into here own by mastering all four of the elements (a trial that each Avatar must complete) and defeated Amon, the reclusive masked orchestrator  of  technologically advanced secessionist movement hell-bent on usurping the Bender-dominated government of Republic City (Avatar’s equivalent to New York/Shanghai) and installing a regime of fascism under the guise of “equality”.

One of the reasons why ‘Korra’ appealed to me so much, more even than its predecessor series,  is because it was able to astutely depict the stark philosophical dichotomy between two opposing yet complimentary forms of Fascism (Oligarchy of Natural Talents vs. Faux-Egalitarianism) all under the guise of a teen-drama animated series.

That’s damn impressive, and serves as another palpable example in the argument that animation, no matter what the intended audience, is capable of inciting significant and insightful debate and reflection in many audiences regardless of age group (if they would only give it a chance!)

But I’m digressing from the intention of this article. I’m not here to convince you to watch Legend of Korra (though a polite nudge of suggestion doesn’t hurt), but rather to offer my own predictions, hopes, and expectations for the second season, which just last Friday aired its one hour season premiere and will continue to air throughout the rest of 2013. The hour-long premiere offered the promise of multiple new faces, the return of older and more significant players, and the incitement of a Civil War waged within a larger natural disaster that Korra must face. So without further prologue, let’s get started…

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1. Koh the Face Stealer will be a major player in the struggle between the Human and Spirit world.

The title of this year’s season is “Spirits’. Every season of Avatar including the first season of Korra has been named after one of the four elements of the planet. With the conclusion of last year’s season, The Avatar must move forward to become a major player in not only the human world but also the spirit world. But there are other threats that vie to eliminate or manipulate the Avatar to further their own aims. One of the most deadly spiritual adversaries the Avatar has encountered is Koh the Face Stealer, a gigantic anthropomorphic centipede with the androgynous face of a human. Koh can adopt the face and form of whoever he consumes, and will murder and consume any person who exhibits fear or emotion within his domain.

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With the albeit totally confirmed reappearance of the giant Owl Wan Shi Tong and his ethereal library of forbidden knowledge, I think it’s safe to assume that Koh will be a major force in the conflict between the Human and Spirit world. Why?  Because he’s one of the most powerful, malevolent, and enigmatic characters in the world of Avatar, and a perfect spirit world counterpart to Korra’s uncle Unalaq in filling the void left by Amon’s departure (We’ll get to him in a sec…). He already has a known history of encounters with two previous incarnations of the Avatar, neither of which were ended on particularly pleasant terms. He’s killed the wife of one of the past incarnations of the Avatar, Korra’s water-bender predecessor Kuruk. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see this guy pop up again, and when we do it will most likely be no good.

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2. We have not seen the last of Amon and Tarrlock.

Speaking of Amon, I don’t think he’s gone yet. Or his brother Tarrlock for that matter either.  Although both of these important tragic figures died in the last episode of the previous season, in perhaps one of the darkest and unsettling moments in the entire series, I don’t believe that they’re gone for good. Why you might ask? Simple. Amon and Tarrlock live on in the spirit world, and perhaps in one way or another will come to help Korra achieve balance between the two worlds. Amon was one of the fiercest, morally-opaque and compelling villains that the show has ever produced. The initial question of his identity and his subsequent popularity among the show’s fan-base catapulted ‘Korra’ to a level of popularity not even seen by ‘Avatar’. Seeing a repentant “post-megalomaniacal” Amon living out in the spirit world is too tantalizing an opportunity to pass on. And Tarrlock…well, one can’t exist without the other, can they?

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3. Varrick will either prove to be a duplicitous snake-in-the-grass, or a surprisingly noble ally to the cause of peace.

Look at this guy’s face. His weaselly, self-serving demeanor. His utter disregard for anything other than himself. If ever I saw the face of an unapologetic snake-oil salesman, it’s Varrick. But ‘Korra’ has done nothing if not defy expectations of character morality. Asami, the tragic but stalwart advocate of peace and coexistence is a championed example of this. I could be reading Varrick all wrong, I’ll openly admit to that. The determining factor of a static or dynamic character is in evidenced in how they do or do not change throughout the course of a story. I’ve only seen about one episode of this guy; an over-enthusiastic buffoon with way too glowing an opinion of himself. I’ll suspend my skepticism until I’m proven right.

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4. Anyone’s Guess.

Anything other than that is an open-ended guess on my part. One of the major emphasis of this season will be relationships, especially those familial. Korra will have to act as a unifying force between the culturally warring factions of her people, evolve through her conflicted respect and resentment for her Air-bending mentor Tenzin, her relationship to the spirit world and her Avatar predessecors (especially that of Aang and Wang, the first Avatar), her budding yet troubled relationship with Mako,  and her relationship with herself. Getting older, wiser, assuming responsibilities. Growing up.

I’m really looking forward to the new places this season is going to bring fans of the show, both literally and thematically. And even if you’re not a ‘Korra’ fan or have never seen an episode of the original series, I highly suggest you give it a shot. Take it from a late-comer, it’s not as hard as you think to catch up on the important stuff 😉