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.
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.
Much 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.
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!