One of the most buzzed about new series of the Fall 2015 television season was the surprise Lifetime Network hit UnREAL, produced by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer/producer Marti Noxon and former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose short semi-autobiographical film Sequin Raze was the basis for the series. UnREAL, which interrogates the politics and production of women-centric programming, has been arguably the most successful part of the Lifetime network’s attempt to rebrand itself as a more self-aware, high-quality cable channel. A dark parody of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Bachelor-like reality dating show called “Everlasting,” the series focuses on the lives of two of the show’s producers, Rachel, a young feminist whose ideals conflict with her uncanny ability to manufacture reality drama, and Quinn, a veteran exec who is beginning to realize that her own relationships are as manufactured as those she constructs on the series.
While both compelling and often quite funny, UnREAL can be difficult for some viewers due to its consistently sardonic tone and its lack of conformity to a single television genre. It seldom leaves the viewer at ease, as every episode exposes the constructedness of our televisual reality and implicates viewer expectations in creating that constructedness. Within this framework, it interrogates televisual presentations of gender, race, and sexuality and how those presentations influence non-televisual reality – or whether there is a non-televisual reality at all. It plays with viewer sympathy and then immediately reminds them that that sympathy is fabricated by the producers and the network. UnREAL also juxtaposes the fantasy of dating shows with the nightmare of both their production and real life romance with a jaded perspective that may scare away viewers looking for lighter fare. Overall, though, its examination of its own genre makes it both interesting viewing and productive classroom material for discussions of media depictions of race, gender, and sexuality as well as the influence of media on our everyday perception.
Part of UnREAL’s pre-season-two marketing is the corollary web series The Faith Diaries, which focuses on one of the show’s most beloved characters, Faith, and her post-show move to Los Angeles to find herself. Faith’s story is one of the lightest spots in the UnREAL narrative, and consequently, the web series is much lighter in tone than the show itself. It continues the show’s exploration of gender, sexuality, and construction of identity, but, in reflecting the character’s personal perspective, lacks the themes of manipulation and falsehood that weave throughout the series proper. While this makes the web show easier to watch, it can also be somewhat jarring for viewers who go into it expecting a closer tonal match to the show itself. Nevertheless, it is an interesting extension of UnREAL’s themes and can be useful in extending its conversation about television’s influence on identity construction.
--Tania Darlington, Northwestern State University