WHEN ROSALIND KRAUSS likened the feedback loop of video to a mirror’s reflection in her landmark 1976 essay on early video art, she couldn’t have dreamed of the extreme-sport navel-gazing of today’s nth-generation reality television. If Krauss articulated the prison effect of video’s illusionistic conflation of subject and object, the first season of UnREAL, Lifetime’s eviscerating metadrama about the producers of an “unscripted” reality dating show, demonstrates that the only way out is backdoor parole: dying behind bars.
A Brechtian reveal occurs not ten seconds into the show’s pilot. An aerial shot panning over an oceanside villa under a gauzy sunsetthe set of Everlasting, a near-litigiously ersatz Bachelor (now in its twentieth season on ABC)cuts to the show’s control room. Executive producer Quinn King (a perfectly pitched Constance Zimmer) barks in an acerbic rasp: “Wake him up! He looks like he’d rather be chewing cud than meeting hot girls.” Our prince, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma)a Prince Harry–type heir to a hotel fortune, with a harmless soft spot for flooziesis unceremoniously asked to be a little more charming as a gaggle of prom-gowned and airbrushed ladies are presented to him like dessert options. The suitor spooks, and producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, a total revelation), the show’s genius enfant-terrible protagonist, is sent to fetch him. Approaching demurely at first, she jibes suddenly to disarm him. She bats her doe eyes and cites a recent tabloid headline about a “royal hottie” who “drops trou with three or four hookers and tweets a selfie” before getting real with him: “You don’t need a matchmaker, you need damage control. Nobody’s going to bet money on your hotel until you rehab your image.”
The set of Everlasting, in which a babe-filled mansion towers over the crew’s tent city, is a heterotopia where all’s fair in the name of one’s image. UnREAL’s cocreator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a producer on The Bachelor for nine seasons, spares no unsavory detail. A swarm of squealing women drift between hot-tub canoodling and strategizing, hair and wardrobe and weepy confessions, provoked, in part, by all-night shoots that render cast and crew alike weary and raw-nerved. Shapiro pumps dimensionality into the contestantsthey are simultaneously parodies of the stereotypes they were hired by Everlasting to represent (the MILF, the virgin, the bitch, the minority) and complicated, self-aware women who are often complicit and calculating in their own objectification. But they are ultimately no match for the show’s blisteringly conniving producers, who broker in trust like back-alley analysts.
By focusing on the producers, UnREAL sets up what appears at first to be a clear binary between fantasy and reality, image and event. “Reality” is signaled by Rachel. She’s broke; she unabashedly masturbates, scoops her deodorant from the near-empty tube with her pinky, and showers in hand sanitizer. Rachel, we are told, was a women’s studies major, and she wears a THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE T-shirt to prove it. This seems in clichéd keeping with the critical distance she maintains from the dating melee and her desexualized buddy behavior, but her stance is quickly troubled by her unencumbered ability to exploit and pigeonhole the women she works with and for in order to get a juicy story. Rachel has a sick knack for flipping an empathetic powwow with a contestant into “There’s a clause in your contract”it’s what makes her really good at her job.
We quickly realize that, in today’s reality television, a story isn’t producedpeople are produced. And as Kim Kardashian’s fifty-three million Instagram followers are being updated on her pregnancy, beauty products, and sinus infections, and Aziah Wells’s viral tweets recounting a stripping trip to Tampa garner her an exclusive with Rolling Stone, the stakes for real drama are higher than ever. What we see on Everlasting are the anthropological experiments of The Real World on speed. Quinn and Rachel, abetted by overeager producers Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Shia (Alice Elasmar), orchestrate what amounts to a food fight of emotional and physical abuses: They push booze on the girls, swap out their medications, and, with the help of an on-set psychologist, exploit their health charts, family histories, and past traumas. Half of the show is spent in the control room, where nanny cams are monitored and plotlines are drafted, and where it becomes clear that sociopathy is a job requirement. Rachel, Jay, and Shia jockey to manage the hottest girls, the bitchiest, the most unstable. Quinn promises cash bonuses for nudity, 9-1-1 calls, and catfights. They know which contestants are micromanaging their own brands, and they know how to usurp that savvy for their own ends. The producers play a long game of strategy, in which the most vulnerable aspects of their pawns are the most valuable.
Charting the upshots of the producers’ games, the series sets the reality-show fairy tale and its making against “real world” constraints, obstructions, and consequences, which are often taken to ratings-inflating extremes: One contestant’s father dies of a heart attack, another contestant is sexually assaulted, yet another is nearly outed on national television, and still another throws herself from the mansion’s roof in a bipolar suicide. In the fallout of each of these incidents, the producers tell one another (and themselves), “Leave your conscience at the door on this one,” and, “Play the game”after all, everyone involved knows what they signed up for, and they’re not here to make friends.
It isn’t surprising that UnREAL has twice been described as something of a slaughterhouse exposé served with fries. The show is clearly an indictment of both the narratives promulgated by “unscripted” television and the inhumane lengths to which its creators are willing to go to get good material. But rather than cement my own distaste for the surprisingly long-lived The Bachelor, watching UnREAL made me crave an introduction to the ur-reality dating circus. The show is a detournement that keeps turning. UnREAL’s critique of the reality-entertainment complex is quickly recuperated by the seductions of mascara-stained cheeks, piss-covered ball gowns, and stockroom blow jobsat the end of each episode, I wondered which I’d kept watching for.
And so, while both reveal the vile labor conditions of a meat market, any comparison between the series and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is, I think, a gross hyperbole. Even Allen Funt’s Candid Camera inspired more vitriol than UnREAL. (In a 1950 New Yorker article, Philip Hamburger wrote that the show was “sadistic, poisonous, anti-human, and sneaky.”) Since the mid-twentieth century we’ve been on to the deceptions of “unscripted” television. UnREAL exposes something more remarkablethat in a genre that has weathered such vacuous apexes of narcissism as The Real Housewives and The Swan, and for an audience that regularly participates in its own self-production on social media, these deceptions are largely unremarkable. We are used to the ways in which the contestants and producers alike challenge and abandon their own moral compasses, waffling about the extent to which they are willing to slut themselves out to the story demanded by executives (or to ensure their celebrity after the show). Far worse for our moral high ground, we are hooked.
The marrow here lies in the ways in which the producers get caught up in the mess, toggling between the social structures and contracts of their “real lives” and those of the “production,” between surveilling and being surveilled, using and being used. What the show does so brilliantly is signal that the differences between the two are often too slippery to pin downand all within the guise of fiction. In the second episode, Rachel’s angry ex-roommate, looking for overdue rent, blackmails her with an unsent e-mail and an intimate homemade video. By the season’s cringeworthy final episodes, Rachel has begun precarious affairs with both a boy-next-door DP, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend and currently engaged to someone else, and the star himself. We see her sift through footage to find a moment in which the bachelor steals a kiss, freeze-framing the shot as she realizes her other paramour has filmed it. Maybe they’re a little extreme, but these situations are likely relatable to UnREAL’s audience. The tautological experience of being on a “reality show” is now one writ large.
Annie Godfrey Larmon is an assistant editor of Artforum.