Annie Lindenberg ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
When UnREAL premiered last year, it was a silent surprise to many. Residing on the Lifetime Network, it came to the small screen discretely, but for anyone who has happened to see the show, they know that it packs an incredible punch. The show itself focuses on Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), two producers of a Bachelor-type reality program titled “Everlasting”. The two go to incredible and dramatic lengths to produce a show with sky-high ratings, all the while questioning their ability to go to such drastic lengths to do so.
Though it certainly doesn’t shy away from being drama-filled and sometimes even a little over the top, UnREAL doesn’t suffer because of it. Instead it is often a rollercoaster of plot twists and manipulative moves that excite while simultaneously hitting hard topics and making bold moves with a strong sense of reality. If you aren’t watching, you definitely should be, and here’s why…
The two main characters in UnREAL are truly flawed, truly strong women. Quinn and Rachel have a dynamic that is refreshing to watch– a friendship so tightly knit yet competitive and complex. There are times when the relationship between the two of them falls apart, yet despite this they constantly fall back together as they are reminded that they are the most important people in the other’s life. While men and parents let them down, they will always have each other.
Both women are strong without being perfect, something TV seems to confuse all too often as synonyms. Rachel is constantly battling herself regarding her ability to do such cruel, manipulative things to others, and these moments of self-realization are often striking and heartbreaking all at once through Appleby’s performance. Dynamic and contrasting, Rachel feels real; both confident in herself and constantly doubting, it is easy to relate to her even if the struggles she deals with are so out of a viewer’s realm of possibility.
Quinn, however, seems to constantly be sure of herself and her decisions. Taking no shit and letting no one tell her what to do, Quinn rules the set to get the results she wants from contestants. In season two the audience is let privy to a few of Quinn’s weaker moments, and these moments let Zimmer’s acting chops truly shine. Her character is made even stronger with the realization that her vulnerabilities do exist, specifically when dealing with a new relationship and the possibility of future motherhood. Quinn is both selfish and selfless in her relationships with others, a contrast that is extremely compelling to watch play out, specifically in regards to Rachel. Her simultaneous need for Rachel to stay on the show while wanting her to get out and have a future she is no longer capable of, shows a tenderness in the two’s relationship.
UnREAL strikes a chord that many are afraid to on television, and Rachel by Quinn’s side might be one of the most beautiful partnerships in media today.
On UnREAL, the characters you love most may not always be the most trustworthy or morally sound. On a reality TV show where all the producers are forced to manipulate to get a show with the highest ratings, the actions they do to get there may not always be the most likeable. Rachel struggles with this the most, consistently surprising herself with her ability to manipulate and get to the product she wants while also feeling the pressure of being a feminist who is capable of doing such horrid things to fellow women. It’s a conflict of interests she is never able to find the right side of.
Fellow-producer Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), has the dignity of being the most morally sound out of all the producers, but even he is incapable of putting a stop to the madness behind scenes. His character offers the audience a springboard to try to place themselves within the reality and insanity of “Everlasting”. Even when he knows it isn’t quite right, Jay will do whatever it takes to move his career in the direction he wants. Chapman plays Jay beautifully and multi-faceted so that the viewers root for him even when they find themselves disappointed.
It’s these characters and many more showcasing questionable morality that add a sense of ambiguity and intrigue into the show. No one on the set of “Everlasting” is perfect, yet the viewer is constantly searching for who lies the closest to right and relatable all in the hopes of deciding who to root for. The secret, dark side of reality television also points a finger at the audience: how can you enjoy something so twisted? Even the audience can’t escape their placement in this morality equation, intriguing them even more as the story unravels. What are you willing to ignore for the sake of the excitement continuing?
There aren’t many shows on television today hitting mental illness quite the way UnREAL is. Too often mental illness is played as a joke or, worse, used as a one episode plot conflict that magically disappears. Rachel’s struggles with mental illness are real and never forgotten. She is constantly being slung with different disorders by those around her– Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder– and is constantly trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t. Is Rachel crazy? Because she’s certainly hit with that question a lot. In its sophomore season the show really attempts to answer this question.
The show takes Rachel’s mental illness to a whole new level as it finally explains where a lot of her insecurity and self-identity issues stem from. Her mother, a psychiatrist who is constantly trying to medicate her, becomes an even stronger force in Rachel’s mental illness as we learn deeper into their shared past. As the audience discovers the truth behind Rachel’s self-worth issues and daily struggles, the answer the show has been alluding to is both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
Along with Rachel, many of the contestants on the show deal with mental illness, and as the producers and crew use these illnesses to their advantage for the sake of the show, the audience is given a prying eye to the difficulty even a recovering sufferer of mental illness can have, and how incredibly strong those are who suffer on a daily basis. Where many shows miss the mark when it comes to the harshness of mental illness, UnREAL doesn’t shy away in the least.
Another difficult topic handled throughout the show, specifically hit hard in season two, is the issue of race. With season two comes the first black suitor– Darius Beck (B.J. Britt)– for UnREAL’s fictional dating program, and with it other topical issues. How race is perceived through television and the reality of racism, even for fictional happy endings, is harsh but tackled well as it is mixed into the season’s plot.
Darius is tortured as Rachel and Quinn manipulate the world around him, even putting him in such harrowing situations as to put his football career on the line as he is physically tested. Where the show could have tried to continue on with the angst and end the season with the drastic reality of an unhappy ending, the show moves in a direction that feels even more realistic– sometimes happiness can be found, and sometimes it promotes a loving, black couple being the possibility for a happy ending.
All in all, UnREAL is the perfect storm. What could have been an over dramatic flop came together with solid writing, impeccable acting, and well-thought out story. The show comes through with such startling gems of truth a viewer will probably be surprised it’s on the Lifetime Network; season two solidifies that fact as the show only grows stronger from its already fierce beginnings. UnREAL may not be perfect, but it has so much working in its favor it certainly begs the question… Are you watching? And if you aren’t – what are you waiting for?