UnReal, season 1, (2015).
Is UnReal really smart, really good, really dumb or really bad? Meta and self-reflexive, producing critique through over-identification or just part of shallow culture?
UnReal is in its third season on Amazon Prime, but I’ve just finished season 1. The drama revolves around the cast, producers and crew of a (fictitious) reality television show called Everlasting (essentially The Batchelor…at least I think that’s a correct comparison…I’ve not actually seen The Batchelor…but I have seen that episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race where they have a maxi-challenge called The Bitchelor…does that count? Probably.) The narrative most closely follows producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby), back from a mental breakdown and straight back into emotionally distressing and manipulative television-land.
Everlasting as the show-within-the-show has several, perhaps contradictory, functions. Firstly, it sets up a drama within itself: who will the Everlasting bachelor Adam (Freddie Stroma) pick to be his wife out of the contestants? Secondly, it sets up the drama concerning those who make the show. Will Rachel reunite with crew member Jeremy (Josh Kelly)? Will Chet (Craig Bierko) leave his wife for Quinn (Constance Zimmer)? Sometimes these two concentric rings gets muddled: will Adam and Rachel get together? But thirdly, what UnReal does that’s so smart is oscillate between these two realms of the show.
Endlessly we see the producers manipulate contestants and contort situations for emotional distress in order to pump viewing figures. As spectators we are able to believe that we have a distance from reality shows like Everlasting. We are not watching such shows, and we have an understanding that they are all performative, pre-destined and phoney. UnReal allows for an enjoyment of the drama of such a show (albeit one functioning within a fictional diegesis) whilst retaining a belief or knowledge about its “true” shallow character.
In a similar relationship between enjoyment and distance, the drama and relationships that occurs “off” Everlasting create a mise-en-abyme of narrative pleasure. The juicy dynamics between characters (pretty much exclusively focussed on the making and breaking heterosexual relationships) closely resemble those happening on Everlasting: people choosing between various other people to be there romantic partner. However, because these dynamics are devised in proximity to the “phoney” construction of the reality show, they appear, by contrast, less cheaply articulated. Thus, this area of narrative is also then available to enjoy more fully. Of course, this entire premise for the show is immediately embroiled in a self-reflexive play of televisual and narrative construction. One imagines seeing Everlasting, zooming out and seeing UnReal surrounding Everlasting, then zooming out again and seeing another version repeated in the production of UnReal. The show plays with such mirrored relationships to production, and thus when watching UnReal, one can feel both superior and pedestrian, watching critique of shallow television and a product of assimilation.
Of course, this argument is already working on several assumptions including: is reality-tv shallow? Is there a spectator guilt when one watches it (or is that just me)? And if so, is that guilt not always-already part of the enjoyment? Is the concept of a guilty-pleasure actually necessary for enjoyment to function?
When I experience joy “fully”, I am unaware of it. It verges on an out-of-body experience such as when one is euphoric. As soon as I become aware of this feeling, I am then also aware of its limited temporal capacity and think: this will end soon. However, with “guilty” pleasure – a feeling of joy that is accompanied by feelings of displeasure (I enjoy this food but it will make me gain weight, I enjoy this tv show but it will make me dumb, I enjoy this drink but it will give me a hangover) the pleasure can be more fully recognised. I can be aware of enjoyment and hold onto it because it is accompanied by a negative counter-part. Though I am not arguing that a negative enhances the affect of a positive, it does allow for a different kind of relationship to pleasure, one that can be more fully grasped as it does not tip over into the overwhelming space of euphoria and thus, one is then not as worried about its ending. The limitation of affect doubly functions as an end to the positive and the negative.
I suppose this is very tied into ideas about desire as always that which one cannot have. As soon as we attain an object we desire, that desire again shifts, taking satisfaction with it, as most desirable entities are coupled with the negative aspect. I wonder – is this part of why drinking is enjoyable? Not in spite of a hangover, but somehow because of it? Because of the bad decisions and the bad day-after?
With UnReal I felt guilty watching television that was “trashy” in its seemingly shallow rhetoric, despite this also being the reason I felt invested in it as an affective force. To counter act this guilty feeling, I then tried to consider it analytically to somehow forestall it being a space I might not be able to learn from.
…On the season 2…?