In Reality, 'UnReal' Shows Who Really Runs the Show

‘UnREAL’ proves once again that reality shows are anything but, and that the goings-on behind the scenes are what really counts

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A scene from 'UnREAL.' Someone always gains at your expense.
A scene from 'UnREAL.' Someone always gains at your expense.Credit: Courtesy

Fascination, just as beauty, is in the eye – and the mind – of the beholder, so I hope you will bear with me when I tell you about my fascination (which has nothing to do either with “fascism” or with “nation”) with the UN. No, not the acronym, which stands for the United Nations, the organization that has been trying, since the end of World War II, to set norms of conduct and oversee the behavior of many, some of them most unruly, nations.

The “un” I have in mind is not even a word in its own right. It is a prefix, an appendage placed before a word you write or utter, to denote the negation or undermining of the accepted meaning of the same word. It is an unmasking of the word (which describes an object, notion or concept), unveiling a different, second, deeper pattern, according to which a system operates, thus making us constantly aware that things are not as they seem to be. Or, to put it differently, that our notion of the world as it seems to us to be, is probably, most of the time, being manipulated by someone. If this is indeed so, the only thing we can do is to try and understand who is doing the manipulating, and why.

I pursued this line of thought after watching most of the second season of “UnREAL,” which ended earlier this month on Lifetime in the U.S., and on both Yes and Cellcom TV in Israel. The premise of the series is to test the limits to which you can stretch the very flexible notion of something being “real,” by giving viewers a peak – actually inviting them to rush right in – behind the scenes of a reality TV show. What you see on screen, posing as a “slice of reality” – are “real people” being monitored constantly as they behave within a set situation. In effect it is anything but real, since what viewers see is being constantly manipulated by unscrupulous showrunners for personal or corporate reasons.

The basic idea of showing the innards of a TV show in progress is nothing new. “The Larry Sanders Show,” starring the late Garry Shandling, started the trend in 1992. “UnREAL” goes further: It takes place behind the scenes of a fictional reality TV show called “Everlasting,” in which young women vie for the heart (and body) of a male suitor, like in the real-life TV series “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” In the first season we were introduced to the whole set, which is of course a setup. What actually happens in the fictional mansion and the basic idea of a reality that looks spontaneous and unpremeditated, can turn out to be the result of behind-the-scenes manipulations. These are mainly aimed to create emotional outbursts from the human beings involved, as that is what creates a buzz and busts the ratings. The havoc it all wreaks on the real people involved be damned.

As we already know by now, those reality shows are rigged to begin with. The contestants – the suitor and the women – agree to be there because each one of them has his or her own reason, which may be the desire for 15 minutes of fame, or a need to change one’s self-perception. The story that “UnREAL” seemed to be telling in its first season was mainly that the same principles of human manipulation exist behind the scenes. The “Everlasting” reality show was created by Quinn King, the ambitious, unscrupulous and cunningly uncanny producer and showrunner (Constance Zimmer), who is grooming (and enslaving and torturing and nurturing) a disciple, the emotionally unstable (actuallyconstantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown) Rachel Goldberg (played by Shiri Appleby, the star and pivot of the series). But if the question that hovers constantly in the air when “everyone is manipulating everyone” (a phrase from the second season), is who runs the show or who is the manipulator-in-chief, “Everlasting” turns out to be one long feud between a series of competing showrunners, all of them constantly striving to out-manipulate the others. Chet, who had an affair with Quinn and problems with drugs, was sidelined and comes back to regain his kingdom. There is Coleman, appointed to run the show as Quinn and Chet, former lovers, are locking metaphorical horns and trying to run the show in different directions. And then there is Gary, the network president, and John, the network owner; there are Jay and Josh, a producer and a cameraman respectively, both of them romantically (and sexually) involved with Rachel.

Unprecedented event

The groundwork was laid in season one, in which the emotionally unstable Rachel is brought back on the set, after “an epic emotional meltdown.” The second season built upon the intentionally shaky foundation that had already established another level of fake reality. In the eighth and last year of a black president in the White House, “Everlasting” boasts of an unprecedented TV event: The suitor in its new, 14th season is black. He’s a football player with a dire need to polish his somewhat tarnished public image, and that’s why he lets himself be manipulated into taking part in something he – and here, he and Rachel are basically in agreement – considers to be “trash TV.”

Here is where it becomes tricky. Rachel, with all her personal problems, lures herself into an illusion that by utilizing reality TV, she can influence popular American worldviews and make an African-American male an acceptable and even coveted trophy for American women, on prime time. It gets even trickier when the “real” reality – in the form of police and ambulances – arrive on the scene. Then it turns out – don’t worry, no spoilers here – that manipulating reality may be a tad more complicated than manipulating people on a TV set, and that “reality” has its own unpredictable way of manipulating all to fit within its inscrutable aims.

As the American presidential elections are nigh, topical references abound: One of the so-called “Ladies,” Beth-Anne from Alabama, is brought to the set to be “Donald Trump with boobs”; another one gets there to advance the Black Lives Matter agenda, only to find that love and lust matter as well. A third season is already commissioned, so we will have chances aplenty to wonder who manipulates whom, when, how and why. As long as the “moneypulation”– getting the ratings (16 million viewers for the fictional “Everlasting,” about 0.5 million for the real “UnREAL”) – works.

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