The rise of the showrunner as auteur has transformed the way we think and write about television, mostly to the good. Thinking about TV seasons as novels warps our understanding of the industrial framework that produces them, and the cultish devotion that grows up around some shows spawns the occasional Nic Pizzolatto ego-monster, but it’s also made showrunners marketable commodities, which in turn gives them more power and creative control.
One of the major downsides of the shifts towards TV auteurism is that it’s left reality TV out in the cold. Overburdened by the glut of great and must-watch shows (which, regrettably, do not always overlap), TV critics have their hands full keeping tabs on the ever-expanding empires of Shonda Rhimes and Vince Gilligan, leaving precious little time to keep up with “Project Runway” or “The Bachelorette.” Onscreen hosts like “Survivor’s” Jeff Probst serve as authorial proxies, but the real prime movers behind the shows tend to remain obscure, the better to maintain the illusion that what happens on reality TV is at least something close to the truth.
Lifetime’s “UnReal,” whose entire first season airs beginning at noon today, leading up to tonight’s season finale, blows the lid off that illusion. Over the course of a season of “Everlasting,” the heavily “Bachelor”-like show within the show, we’ve seen how easily what happens in front of the cameras can be manipulated, and sometimes created from scratch. The show’s producers compete to get their “girls” into the final rounds, chasing bonuses and continued employment, since once the last of the contestants they’re charged with goes home, they do too. In the lingo of “Everlasting,” people aren’t handled: They’re “produced.”
Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), who steps onto “UnReal’s” stage wearing a T-shirt that reads “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” has spent the season trying to carve out a morally tolerable space for herself in “Everlasting’s” cutthroat universe. The tension between her women’s-studies background and her preternatural talent for manipulation led her to a mental collapse at the end of “Everlasting’s previous season, but she’s still under contract and deep in debt, so she returns to what she’s best at, even if she wishes she weren’t. She coaches her contestants and sculpts the resulting footage as much as any director or “scripted” writer would. She’s an auteur, even if she’s not recognized as such.
Like the contestants on “Everlasting,” Rachel has power within the context of the show, but little outside of it; her personal life is so circumscribed that she sleeps in a makeshift bunk on the set. “UnReal’s” first episode — like “Sequin Raze,” the short film by co-creator and former “Bachelor” associate producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro that sowed the seeds for the show — was a caustic satire about women betraying other women to further their own ends; Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the show’s executive producer and queen bee, functioned as a malevolent god, ruling over her wired world with hidden cameras and instructions barked through the crew’s headsets. But over the course of the season, “UnReal” has grown more sophisticated in its critique, exploring in the ways in which reality TV, as a medium and as an industry, simultaneously furnishes women with opportunities for self-advancement and strengthens the systems that disempower them.
“Savior,” the show’s seventh and best episode so far, follows the aftermath of tragedy on set. (The next two paragraphs contain spoilers.) After Rachel engineers a confrontation between Mary, a mentally unstable contestant, and her abusive ex-husband, Mary commits suicide, throwing both the custody of her daughter and the future of “Everlasting” into dispute. Rachel fakes a suicide note that exonerates both the show and herself, and further points out that Mary’s ex-husband once broke their daughter’s arm in a fit of rage. (This is a show that assumes there is no need to explain why a violent abuser might end up as the custodial parent; abusive men working the legal system is a Lifetime staple.) Rachel plans to have a member of “Everlasting’s” cast read the forged note on the air, but Mary’s sister insists she do it herself. “My tears,” she insists. Mary’s sister knows the note is fake, but she also knows that reading it on the air will turn public opinion, and the courts, her way. She doesn’t control the system, but given the right circumstances, she can work it to her advantage.
The same goes for “Everlasting’s” female producers, Quinn, who strikes fear into the heart of her underlings on set, is a comparative doormat in her personal life: She’s settled for being the other woman to her married boss, Chet (Craig Bierko), for years, and let him steal credit for the show she invented, to boot. Mary’s death prompts a restructuring of their relationship: He decides to leave his wife and gives Quinn a financial stake in the show and a seat at the table in network negotiations. But when the newly strengthened duo go to pitch the network on “Everlasting’s” next season, the male network executive looks right through Quinn and only responds when Chet brings things down to his level. Chet may be sincere in his desire to put Quinn on equal footing, but it’s still bros before executive pro-s. (End spoilers.)
“Scandal” and “Orphan Black” notwithstanding, there’s no show on TV that better delineates the specific kind of power women wield within a male-controlled system. “Everlasting” literally sells fairy tales — it’s like a dystopian gloss on a Disney princess fable — but everyone knows they’re playing a part, and that no matter who gets picked, the house always wins. That fantasy, as “UnReal” never lets us forget, is rooted in a host of regressive social norms: The “wifey,” as the contestants pre-selected for the final round are labeled, must be white and middle-class, sexually desirable but demure. One repeated behind-the-scenes mantra is “Sluts get cut.”
“UnReal’s” characters adhere to a different code, derived not from storybooks but soap operas; at a Paley Center panel, co-creator Marti Noxon said the writers constantly ask themselves, “Is this despicable enough?” The show doesn’t pity them, or make excuses for them. Quinn and Rachel may be working within the constraints of a system, but they still have choices, and they frequently make bad ones — for which they suffer harsher consequences than a man ever would. “UnReal” is smart enough to wrap its critique of patriarchal structure in a compulsively watchable drama full of outrageous plot twists, appealing to the very factors it leads you to question. That it airs on Lifetime, buffered by ads for shows that appear to do the same without the layer of self-conscious criticism, just makes it more potent. This is what a feminist TV show looks like.