‘Yawn Yearns into Me’: The Preeminent Postmodernism of Unreal’s EP10, “Future”

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.

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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.

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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!

‘There Was Nothing Really Wrong with Rachel’: Shiri Appleby on Her Role as Unreal’s Rachel Goldberg and the Show’s Portrayal of Mental Illness

One of the most recurrent themes I came across while writing online criticisms of the first season of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Lifetime Original drama series Unreal was its depiction of debilitating mental illness, especially through the example of its protagonist Rachel Goldberg, portrayed by lead actress Shiri Appleby. Given the enormous amount of critical praise the first season garnered for its characterization of Rachel as she faces the challenge of resisting toxicity in a workplace unarguably sustained by it, as well as criticisms leveled at the show’s subsequent derailment with regard to these portrayals in later seasons, our class asked Shiri Appleby herself how just how pertinent a priority of portraying mental illness was while filming the show’s first season during a Skype call interview with her last Wednesday (Dec. 12th).

“I saw an article on Sarah Shapiro’s original short [Sequin Raze] on Deadline once and I knew the original actress who portrayed Rachel,” says Appleby when asked as to how she first came to audition for the role of Rachel. “I thought it was so cool and then I got an audition for it a few months later. I went in and interviewed with Sarah Shapiro and Marti Noxon, and then I went in and read for the studio and network, and from there I was signed on.”

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A scene from the original Unreal short, “Sequin Raze

When asked what initially attracted her to auditioning for the role of Rachel, Appleby was enthusiastic in relating the dimensions of who she saw as complicated, multi-faceted character. “I’m always looking for someone who I can obviously connect with y’know, so it’s always about the writing,” says Appleby. “The show was really like a fight for her soul in so many ways. She’s a really dark character. So even if you’re acting, you’re still living those emotions. You’re working late at night in Vancouver in the rain. Which y’know, can be kind of a bummer but, I think that sometimes inhabiting a character, having a character say things that are mean to another character, even if it’s not real, can be difficult. So I think that’s really the challenging part of her being a darker character, her world and worldview was darker. It wasn’t the Big Bang Theory. with Rachel, I could just emotionally connect to her in this sense of trying to be stripped down and bare and not like, do anything you would normally wouldn’t do.”

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Unreal Protagonist Rachel Goldberg, portrayed by Shiri Appleby

When the interview pivoted to the show’s depiction of mental illness and how much the accuracy of these portrayals were predetermined before and during the filming of Unreal’s first season, Appleby was forthcoming about what she perceived of Rachel’s mental and emotional state and how much forethought really went on behind-the-scenes. “I really chose to say that— to me, there was nothing really wrong with Rachel.” says Appleby. “Rachel was a product of circumstances, she had a really mentally abusive mother, she didn’t have any love, her father was checked out. And so she’s always found herself in a bad situation because she doesn’t have anybody to trust in the world, so I always felt like that part was wrong with her. But to be honest with you I don’t think that, as we were making the first season, it didn’t occur to us it was going to hit quite such a nerve as it did. I think everyone was surprised by that. Before we filmed the first season, I was asking before I signed on what Rachel’s journey was going to be and it was all kind of vague. I think they had an idea, but not really fully-formed.”

Having spoken with the show’s lead actress, in addition to having watched a majority of the first season, the various triumphs and pitfalls of the series’ ongoing portrayal of mental illness now assume an hue of both serendipity and blind luck. The nature of television production is such that, no matter how finely tuned one’s target demographic may be or how tightly honed the show’s on-set production is, one cannot possibly account for how a show will be received until it actually airs, let alone how that show will take on a new meaning and reputation within the discourse of popular culture. Is it possible that as the show continued past the first season, due to the press coverage associated with Unreal’s depiction of mental illness, subsequent seasons began to more tactfully approach its treatment of mental illness as a result of new self-awareness of its place in the cultural moment? Perhaps. But we now know that, for the most part, these depictions were more inspired by decisions in the moment rather than by some great overarching design. Still, that’s not excusing the show’s later missteps with regards to its sensationalist depiction of mental illness, nor does it mean that the show is not subject to criticism from the general public and its audience. As Joss Whedon once said in a 2012 interview, “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”

‘As Serious As Your Life’: Representations of Trauma and Grief in Unreal EP07, “Savior”

The concept of representation with regards to Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Nixon’s Unreal has always been a pernicious one. As can be seen from the series’ outset, racial diversity, in addition to racial discrimination and fetishization, have been framed at the forefront of the show’s attention and becomes the primary focus of several early episodes of the Unreal’s first season. The seventh episode of Unreal’s first season, titled “Savior,” however centers on one particular example of representation. More specifically, the representation of trauma.

s01e07_369.jpg“Savior” opens immediately in the aftermath of the previous episode “Fly,” where at the end Mary (Ashley Scott), a middle-aged contestant of Everlasting and single mother of a young daughter, falls to her death following a confrontation with her abusive ex-husband further exacerbated by a combination of alcohol and prescription medicine abuse. Quinn, the executive producer of Everlasting, is one of the first people on the scene of Mary’s death and immediately orders producers Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Shia (Aline Elasmar) to send the rest of the contestants to a room and tell them nothing of what has just occurred. After the contestants are sent away, this exchange occurs,

Faith: Hey, can we get a few- [Jay closes door, interrupting Faith.]
Grace: There’s a cop car and an ambulance out there.
Anna: When my dad died, they called an ambulance for no reason. It was it was all for show.
Grace: This is obviously a stunt.

Already we see Unreal playing with the show’s inherently meta-textual nature as a show-within-a-show, depicting contestants commenting on the inherent spectacle of Everlasting and speculating that this is just one of the producer’s many, many stunts to incite curiosity and manufacture controversy. The truth, however, is far more tragic.

Faith: Anyone seen Mary?
Shamiqua: Unh-unh.
All: No.
Faith: Maybe something’s wrong with her.
Maya: I bet she’s just with Adam. I mean, she just won the date.
Grace: They probably want us sitting around dissing her ’cause we’re jealous.
Shamiqua: Typical, it’s all made up. 100 percent delusional.
Maya: No, I don’t know. This This seems real to me.
Grace: It always looks real.
Maya: This is different. There are there are no cameras there. They’re they’re not shooting it.
Anna: You guys, she’s right. There’s no cameras out there.
Faith: Or in here.

As Anna and Faith point out, the ensuing drama around them is entirely un-filmed by the Everlasting camera crew, a fact which raises alarm and suspicion that something is not right. It is only later, at a cast and crew gathering that following morning that Adam (Freddie Stroma) informs the contestants that Mary claimed her own life by falling from one of the mansion’s roofs. Each of the contestants react in different ways to this news: Anna reflects on Mary’s demeanor the previous day; Grace stares off in a dissociated shock; Maya chastises Grace for not crying; and Faith leads the crew in a moment of prayer.

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Maya chastising Grace.

After learning of Shia’s indirect role in the circumstances that lead to Mary’s suicide, Quinn and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) conspire for a way to dampen the allegations pitted against the show and redirect accusations to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her ex-husband, Kirk Newhouse (Ty Olsson). However, while filming interviews with the cast in order to indict Kirk’s behavior, their efforts are intercepted and summarily thwarted by Brad (Martin Cummins), one of the network executives sent out to contain the circumstances of Mary’s passing. Confronted with a no-win situation, Rachel visits Mary’s room to contemplate what’s to be done. Later, she comes to Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko), Everlasting’s co-executive producer, and Brad with a solution in the form of a suicide note, written by Mary.

s01e07_408.jpgThe producers immediately send for Louise (Chelah Horsdal), Mary’s sister, to confirm that the note is her sister’s and approve of it being read on-air. This exchange ensues,

Louise: You’re right. We really need to read this on camera.
Rachel: I mean, if it’s something that you would be comfortable with, it would certainly help paint the show in a better light, and it would be so good for Mary, too.
Louise: It’s not just about Mary. Kirk’s power bitch lawyer is already angling to get Lily Belle away from me. I’ll be damned if I let that happen.
Rachel: Yeah, okay, well, you know, I can get the letter to Graham, make sure that he reads it on camera tonight.
Louise: No. I want to read it. Me. My tears.
Rachel: Okay.

Louise tearfully reads Mary’s suicide note, publicly absolving the Everlasting cast and crew from culpability and laying blame squarely at the feet of Kirk’s mistreatment of Mary for years. After the filming, Rachel embraces Louise and tells her she did a great job reading Mary’s note.

Rachel: That was amazing. Amazing job with Mary’s words. You really did a great job.
Louise: Thanks.
Rachel: Mm.
Louise: Nice job on the note. I almost believed it was real.
Rachel: Louise, I don’t even know what—
Louise: Don’t. It was smart. It had to be done.
Adam: You okay with this?
Louise: Absolutely. Whatever it takes to keep Lily Belle away from that monster.

s01e07_465.jpgThrough Louise’s complicity in the manufacturing of Mary’s final words, Unreal demonstrates how grief, and the search for release from it, can manifest in dark and harrowing actions, albeit ones committed through the best of intentions. As representation necessitates a reductionist, if calculated depiction of a specific demographic or topic in order to conform to the space and time allotted to a prime-time serial drama, one could say that “Savior” condenses the entirety of the five stages of grief into the space of 40 minutes in order to depict the cast’s trauma, heartache, negotiation, and finally, acceptance and endurance in the face of terrible loss.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

‘Beats, Rhymes, and Life’: A Narrative Breakdown of Unreal EP04 “Wife”

As stated by Michael Z. Newman in his essay, “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative,” the contemporary prime-time serial, or PTS, is one of the most formulaically persistent show formats of American television. This is because of the format’s organization of long-form storytelling into the descending increments of arcs, episodes, and beats, each of which is structured with consideration of quote, “television’s most basic aesthetic and economic goal […] engaging the viewer’s attention.

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The most fundamental form of this is the “beat,” commonly referred to as “scenes” by laypersons, but recognized by writers as the most basic storytelling unit in the medium of television. While the length of any one beat is variable to change, the common practice is for a beat to average at around two minutes in length, per the stipulations imposed by the network. As Newman states, “Given the commercial imperative of keeping the audience interested, most forms of television present a rapid succession of short segments.” Analyzing the structure of beats within a episode of television, such as in the case of fourth episode of Unreal’s first season, titled “Wife,” reveal not only the underlying formula of prime-time serial storytelling, but the priority and precedence of certain character’s long-form arcs over others imposed by the series’ producers and writing staff. For the purposes of this analysis, let’s break down the initial 10 minutes of “Wife” and see what we can discern about the show’s immediate and long-term priorities. To do this, I have constructed a so-called “beat sheet” to break down each of the episode’s opening character-centric interactions.

beatsheet.JPGMuch is revealed through this exercise. The show’s premise as a “show-within-a-show” is foregrounded from the beginning with the introduction and subsequent reveal of Graham’s tryst with one of the eliminated contestants. The fact that it is Graham, a character about whom the audience knows little to nothing about, who is central to scene is important, connoting the impression that the message of the show’s format and intent supersedes that of the messenger. Of the primary cast of characters, Rachel and Quinn have the most interactions, both with each other and with other characters, than any other one character in the episode’s opening ten minutes.

This is not surprising, given the fact that by now, the show has long since established that Rachel and Quinn are Unreal‘s protagonist and deuteragonist, respectively. Various subplots, both narrative and thematic, are elaborated throughout the course of these ten minutes. The tension of racial bias and performance exemplified in the exchange between Athena and Shamiqua, Chet’s habitual infidelity and manipulative tendencies towards not only Quinn but almost every woman in his life, whether romantic or platonic, Rachel’s brewing romantic tension with Adam and her ex-boyfriend Jeremy’s observation and contention with this potential relationship. Even Rachel’s intuitively manipulative tendencies are on display in the case of her choice to withhold the truth of her “role” in Jeremy’s promotion. Finally, capping all of this off is a tongue-in-cheek proclamation that plays into the show’s modus operandi as a series dedicated to upending the idyllic assumptions of reality television production, alluding to the idea of “True Love” as something that must be manufactured and sold for mass consumption.

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Puppy dog eyes.

If all of this can be gleaned from a just a cursory survey of the episode’s opening 10 minutes, what would a cross-referenced analysis of the entire season of the show reveal?

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

‘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!

A Smile, or a Show of Teeth? the Institutional Utility of Unreal’s Biting Darkness

smile.JPGIt can be difficult to grasp why the Lifetime Network would green-light the production of a show like Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s Unreal. After all, what would a network known for its made-for-TV love stories and reality show dramas in the form of  Little Women: LA, Bring It!, Project Runway, all targeted at a predominantly female demographic aged 25-54 conceivably want with Unreal, a series which mercilessly vivisects each and every single one of those formats and, by proxy, the women who view them?

However, in the case of the second episode of Unreal’s first season, titled “Relapse,” the show’s institutional utility to the network is unmistakable when contextualizing the show’s premise within the continuum of the channel’s past and immediate future.

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When Lifetime was first established in 1984 as a result of Hearst/ABC’s Daytime and Viacom’s Lifetime Medical Television merger, the channel was plagued with middling ratings and viewership, owed primarily to a miscommunication of the channel’s brand as an explicitly, and exclusively, religious station. The network subsequently hired Patricia Fili as head of programming to rehabilitate Lifetime’s image, pivoting from explicit conservatism and refocusing on shows that afforded attention to quote-unquote, “women’s issues.” Such shows manifested in the form of Made-for-TV romance dramas and talk shows, a move which, while cultivating a thriving demographic of built-in female viewers, spurned viewers that existed outside of that demographic for a perception of being staid and too safe.

Again, Lifetime found themselves in need of a re-orientation, though nowhere near as radical as their earlier network-wide re-branding. During the mid-to-late aughts, Lifetime began making a push to incorporate more ostensibly “unscripted” shows in the way of Dance Moms, America’s Supernanny, Project Runaway, and its subsequent off-shoot, Project Accessory. This move paid significant dividends in the form of reliable viewership, though it was not without its setbacks in the form of Roseanne Barr’s 2011 reality show comeback, Roseanne’s Nuts, and Russian Dolls, a reality drama of eight Russian-American families living in Brighton Beach, New York.

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Which brings us roughly to the state of Lifetime circa 2015. By now, the Network had carved its niche into an arena of “unscripted” television dramas and secured successful gains in viewership and advertising. So, to emphatically reiterate again, just what the hell were they thinking putting Unreal on the air? Put simply, Shapiro and Noxon’s scathing pitch-black show-within-a-show afforded the Network an opportunity to jockey for cultural cachet among a demographic of viewers who prized disaffection with the status quo and irony-laden irreverent humor above all else in their choice of entertainment, as well again attempting to inch out of the prescriptive assumptions that Lifetime’s programming was for women ages 25 to 54 and only women ages 25 to 54.

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“Relapse” offers both of these aforementioned gratifications in ample supply, as does the first episode of Unreal and, presumably, the rest of its first season. Rachel is the perfect surrogate for the show’s target audience, expressing exasperation and disillusionment towards the twisted inner workings behind the saccharine exterior of Everlasting while nevertheless navigating these treacherous conditions in an effort to bend them to her benefit. Likewise, the machinations of Everlasting’s producer Jay to transform one or more of the show’s two black contestants into the season’s quote-unquote “villain” at Quinn’s behest is a clear example of the show’s ability to step outside of the expectations stacked on Lifetime’s other reality show fare and speak “truth” to “power” in how Lifetime’s shows capitalized on stifling, harmful, and retrograde portrayals of race and gender, all while nonetheless indulging in those very same manipulations itself, if only refracted through a meta-fictional lens.

Unreal is, or to be more precise was, Lifetime’s Trojan horse among disaffected millennials and, in terms of ratings, it won in the war for ratings during its first season on-air.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

No, Space Dandy is NOT Cowboy Bebop. Get over it.

His is the Pompadour that will pierce the heavens.Last night, Cartoon Network’s late-night action cartoon block Toonami aired the world-premiere episode of Space Dandy, a sci-fi comedy action series produced by Studio Bones and overseen by acclaimed anime director Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame. Can Space Dandy really be as great as fans expect? Potentially, yes. But is it the anime you really hoped for? Nope, and that’s okay.

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