UnREAL and The Inescapable Stage
An underlying tension exists for every reality show: this is a stage, but it’s not supposed to look like one.
By KATHRYN VANARENDONK
Reality shows are, and have always been, plagued by the murky relationship between the reality of their presentations and the real-er reality of their production. This provides an important element of the reality series’ mystique and appeal.
Did he really stumble onto that immunity idol, or did a producer point him in the right direction? Surely this meltdown is scripted… but maybe she actually feels this way? How much alcohol have they all consumed? How much of this unbelievable odiousness is he playing up for the camera?
In some series, the lines are clearer than others. But for every reality show, there is an underlying tension: this is a stage, but it is not supposed to look like a stage.
The most famous and remarkable moment expressing this tension is the last scene in the finale of The Hills (2006–10) — that stunning shot when a wistful bro stands watching his ex-girlfriend’s car drive away, and the artfully framed background image pulls away to reveal he’s standing on a film studio lot. This scene was revolutionary and perfect and completely tongue-in-cheek.
At its best, which it so often is in its first four episodes, that scene from The Hills is at the heart of Lifetime’s new drama unREAL (2015- ). The series comes out of a long and fascinating line of behind-the-scenes television shows, those which give viewers a peek at the making of news shows, of radio shows, of sports and variety shows, of musicals. But thanks in part to its subject, unREAL brings a new and super-watchable take on the idea.
unREAL’s chosen subject is the matchmaking reality sub-genre (specifically The Bachelor/ette), which it explores with its fictionalized series Everlasting. We have a suitor (a bachelor), a troupe of desperate and naive women, a mansion, and a bland brunette male host in a suit. We also have a driven, foul-mouthed female executive producer, a crew of grasping, broken, ambitious producer underlings, a congenial creator with a bad case of arrested development, and a horde of other camera people, production assistants, therapists, craft service workers, and family members. It is a crowded show.
This, as much as anything else, is what immediately strikes you about unREAL. Any given scene on The Bachelor (2002- ) may have as many as five or ten contestants in it, maybe more if it’s one of the first few episodes. But for the most part, it is built around short, one-on-one scenes and talking-head confessionals: the bachelor with this woman, these two women fighting, the bachelor with that woman, these scenes intercut with each of them speaking alone to the camera.
The viewer can see the production of moments like that on unREAL, but what she also sees is the overwhelming swarm of people mixed into and surrounding the on-screen personalities. Producers prompt, prod, and serve alcohol, cameramen go sprinting across a cocktail party to catch a shot, and everyone perpetually barks into his walkie-talkies to communicate with the executive producer. There are people everywhere.
unREAL’s crowded visual field instantly distinguishes it from its subject matter simply in terms of its cinematography and visual style, but it’s also indicative of unREAL’s underlying narrative preoccupations. The fun and drive of the typical behind-the-scenes TV show is the perpetual juxtaposition of presentation and production: that actor plays a straight guy, but he’s really gay; this dance number looks very polished but it was written two hours ago; she got very angry about something in life, and she’s broken character onstage.
The premise of every behind-the-scenes show is Here’s what it’s like onstage, and this is what it’s like backstage. The premise of unREAL is This whole damn thing is a stage, and the lines between who you are and who you look like are perpetually shifting, and liable to reverse at any moment.
unREAL’s dominant narrative engine is the glorious, contradictory fact that its actual backstage must remain completely hidden, even as its backstage producers and cameramen are onstage and fiddling with the narrative at every possible moment.
This Gordian knot of televisual production fuels nearly every scene of unREAL. The primary backstory of its protagonist, producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), is that she became unhinged and destroyed the end of last season’s finale, storming onto the set to inform the soon-to-be-runner-up that the suitor was about to dump her.
Rachel is invited back because the fiasco produced enormous ratings, although her presence on the set was completely edited out. Rachel’s genius, in fact, is her ability to insert herself into the nascent contestant’s insecurities and fears, creating drama where none was before.
But the porous, inescapable, all-assimilating nature of Everlasting goes beyond Rachel. The contestant’s “private” bedrooms are filmed, the suitor uses the show for his own personal agendas, and even the physical space is a swiftly changing border. The producers compete to see who can spur contestants into dramatics, with cash bonuses for ambulances, cat fights, and kissing. The mansion is the show’s ostensible set, but when a contestant’s father dies, she goes sprinting off the property — exeunt, pursued by producer and cameraman.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (2012–14) is set behind the scenes of a news show, but its revelations about the process of making the news are, at best, mildly novel. The current most popular aesthetic of a news show, after all, is to set its onscreen talent in front of its newsroom, so we can see all of its busy reporters bustling around in the background.
It’s an unfair comparison because their projects are not at all the same, but 30 Rock (2006–13) is similarly lacking in surprises about the backstage process of a variety show (i.e., wacky people onstage are also wacky offstage). The same can be said for NBC’s crash-and-burn behind the scenes of a musical show, Smash (2012–13): theatrical people onstage are also theatrical offstage.
The unbelievable, and truly impressive thing (thus far) about unREAL is that however far from the mark it may be in its representation of what it’s like to make a reality show, it is impossible to turn back to The Bachelor/ette and fail to see it through unREAL’s lens.
For instance, when pretentious, male model Ian (a rare African American Bachelorette contestant) raged about how absurd it is that the bachelorette was not immediately in love with him, it was impossible not to wonder how a producer managed to prod him to such repugnance. As well, when a contestant choppily opined about his growing feelings for the bachelorette, you could immediately see the executive producer watching a much longer, meandering piece of footage and muttering, “We can use some of that.”
For however revolutionary that last shot of The Hills may have been, it was essentially still a joke about reality shows. It was a confirmation, but not a tell-all. unREAL picks up on the promise of that admission and runs with it — runs barefooted down the recently-hosed-down driveway, its high-heels clutched in its hands, a golf cart carrying a cameraman and a production assistant trundling swiftly behind.