That Sarah Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Unreal is a postmodernist television should come as no surprise to anyone at this point, least of all to me for having written on the show’s first season for the past three weeks. Lifetime’s serialized drama depicting fictitious interpersonal odyssey of Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a freelance producer for the metafictional romance-drama dating series Everlasting, is show-within-a-show, encompassing many complementing and contradictory meanings within the format of a prime-time television drama. I’ve already written peripherally about the show’s many allusions to postmodernist ideas through my past formalist analysis earlier on in the season’s run, but the tenth and final episode of Unreal’s first season, titled “Future,” itself is an exemplary artifact for analyzing the show’s inextricable relationship within the framework of these ideas.
As scholar Victoria O’donnell lays out in her chapter on postmodernism in the her book titled “Television Criticism,” “Television is mostly postmodern […] Not all television is postmodern, for tight programming schedules and time allotted for commercials force timed segments.” This detail alludes to the idea that Cable and satellite television stations, as well as internet streaming services, are more predisposed to hosting postmodernist television by allotting more time that would otherwise be reserved for advertisers instead for show-runners to explore and push the temporal and narrative dimensions of their time-slot. Unreal is the rare show that finds a way to serve its two master: allotting advertisement space per the demands of its network (i.e. Lifetime) while exploring its inherent postmodernist stylings via its intertextual proximity to another network television series, The Bachelor. Shapiro’s past experiences on the show as a producer served as the basis for her short film pilot Sequin Raze and that film’s ultimate incarnation in the form of Unreal, and as such, the knowledge of Shapiro’s past has served as an quintessential detail in the framework of any serious critical analysis.
As O’donnell describes it, “Postmodernism embraces the Other, flawed heroes, and antiheroes as it blurs the line between good and evil, acceptance and rejection. It mixes genres, creates new genres, offers new meanings or no meanings, and mixes up various styles. It “revels in the image, endlessly (re)circulating and (re)combining cultural styles in a playful dance.” the fact that I could have easily excised any attribution of O’donnell (which I would never, that’s rude) and solely frame that as a description of Unreal proper and few if anyone would contest that description only attests to how firmly the show sits between the crosshairs of a postmodernist reading. “Future” exhibits all these qualities, and more, that cohere within criteria of being a postmodernist text. An emphasis on flawed “heroes” (i.e. Rachel), embrace of the Other (e.g. Faith’s closeted sexuality, Jay’s intersectional challenges as an openly gay black man, etc.), a surplus of images and discourses that demand our mutual attention (e.g. the recursive nature of depicting important scenes on monitors which themselves are reacted to by characters watching said monitors, etc.). What the fact of Unreal’s status as a postmodernist text speaks about the characteristic of the show is the inherent multiplicity of its attendant meanings. Unreal is a wealth of contradictions, harsh yet palpable; socially aware yet crassly indulgent; sympathetic yet viciously coercive towards not only its cast of characters but to its very audience’s expectations and emotions. The first season alone is an exemplary instance of postmodernist narrative storytelling and a collection of episode worth approaching and coming back to for not only critical analysis but unabashed entertainment as well.
Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!