The single worst thing a television character can be is bad at his job. We will forgive any number of failings from the fictional men and women we welcome into our homes each week, so long as they are successful at whatever it is they do: We want great ad men, great drug dealers, great mob bosses, and, with the addition of UnREAL's Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), great producers of reality TV.
Rachel, the protagonist of the Lifetime series, spends her days (and often nights) playing manipulative, borderline sadistic mind games with a group of women competing for the hand of a wealthy British suitor named Adam on a fictionalized version of The Bachelor, titled Everlasting. She pushes the show's cast to the brink so that Everlasting can portray them as “unlikeable” in familiar, stereotypically feminine ways—as idiotically romantic, as catty and jealous, as emotionally volatile. Rachel is compelling largely for her unique talent at her unethical profession; UnREAL bucks the very Hollywood stereotype it lampoons by presenting us with a leading lady who is deeply flawed, but deeply likeable nonetheless.
Rachel, too, derives her self-worth from her unique competence. When, in an early episode, her emotionally abusive mother suggests that she is mentally unstable, she snaps back, “I know you don't approve, but I am damn good at what I do.”
Later, when Rachel uses the same tactics her mother uses on her to spark a catfight between two contestants on Everlasting, the moment feels reluctantly triumphant.
“You're a genius,” Rachel's cutthroat boss, Quinn, tells her. “You're home.”
Rachel's foil, Shia, is another ruthless female producer, though she’s less savvy. Quinn makes this clear in the show's pilot episode. “People trust her,” she tells Shia of Rachel, “And they like her. That stuff can't really be taught.”
Shia, feeling the pressure of competition with Rachel and unable to liven up a bipolar contestant through emotional manipulation alone, swaps out some of her medication. When the contestant later commits suicide, Rachel falsifies evidence to direct blame away from the show. Shia is fired, and Rachel's deception reminds us that the moment is satisfying because Shia is frustratingly inept. It has nothing to do with righteousness, or doing the right thing.
A fortunate side effect of UnREAL's placement on Lifetime is that both Quinn and Rachel are women who are sexual without being hyper-sexualized. Appleby deftly executes the best portrayal of female masturbation I've ever seen on television: It’s neither sanitized nor gratuitous. The same goes for sex scenes featuring Quinn and the married creator of Everlasting. Yet despite Quinn's questionable ethics and Rachel's too-loud feminism, the two happily proclaim “sluts get cut” to dissuade contestants from hooking up with Adam too early in the game.
Similar issues arise on the subject of race. At one point, a producer pulls the show's two remaining black contestants aside and informs them that their only path to the final four is to conform to the role of “black bitch.” One contestant, who insists that she wants to succeed on her own merits, outright refuses. Another, uninterested in the bachelor stand-in but hoping to use the show to build her brand, agrees to engage in angry, racially charged outbursts. But it is the former who outstays the latter and who makes it to the final four without compromising her values. “It's not my fault that America's racist,” Quinn declares in the show's opening scene. But when we see her encouraging stereotypical behavior and imposing imagined limitations we realize—as we’re meant to—that yes, it kind of is.
Like Quinn, those who are tritely prejudiced often claim that they are merely being honest about the realities of the world. UnREAL, co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on The Bachelor who wrote the series from her own experience, undercuts that notion by conveying just how warped the “reality” conveyed by popular culture is. The hoops that the producers must jump through to depict the women as unlikeable clichés reveal just how ridiculous the tropes are. Rachel's unscrupulous brilliance is extracting these moments from the women on Everlasting, which demands no shortage of editing tricks and psychological torture. In an interview with the Santa Monica radio station KCRW, Shapiro admits the tactics are only mildly dramatized from her own time on The Bachelor. The clear implication: Reality shows are as much about manipulating their contestants as they are about manipulating their viewers.
That even Quinn and Rachel fall prey to the fairy tale they've constructed themselves—respectively accepting an ill-advised on set marriage proposal and getting romantically involved with Adam—only underscores the pull of the illusion. “It's just like addictive, irresistible fantasy,” Shapiro says in the interview. “Even for me, who's like a dyed in the wool feminist, I still see a diamond and get a little woozy.”
That all it takes is talent, hard work, and a dream to make it is another Hollywood fantasy constructed by a particular class of people. And, if UnREAL is any indication, television has finally caught onto the notion that, unlike the appeal of a diamond ring, the fantasy isn't gendered. But this doesn't make it any less compelling. When Adam reminds Rachel that her lofty ambitions are to be a novelist or work in social impact, and not to become a showrunner, she scoffs. “Those are just my dreams,” she says, “this is my actual life.”
The parallels to Shapiro's past are evident. “The thing that I really kind of love about reality crews in my experience is that they are generally the kids who couldn't afford to go to film school,” she says of her time on The Bachelor. “It's a very working class, very true blue, very loyal group of people who really love film but are just sort of doing a day job.” The idea that one can achieve actualization and fulfillment through one's work, despite questioning its value, explains both the appeal of UnREAL and the unique allure of the antihero. The fantasies are equally irresistible, more enthralling because they’re just out of reach.