‘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!

‘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!

‘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!