‘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!

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‘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!

‘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!