Monday, June 1, 2015

REVIEW: 'UnREAL' - Rachel Returns to the Set as a New Season of Everlasting Begins in 'Return'

Lifetime's UnREAL - Episode 1.01 "Return"

Set against the backdrop of a fictional hit dating competition show, a young staffer's sole job is to manipulate her relationships with the contestants to get the vital dramatic and outrageous footage the program's dispassionate executive producer demands. What ensues is a humorous, yet vexing, look at what happens in the world of unscripted television, where being a contestant can be vicious and producing it is a whole other reality.

My only experience with shows such as The Bachelor - which UnREAL is clearly parodying with its show-within-the-show, Everlasting - is through what I've seen in commercials. And yet, that fact doesn't take away from the appeal, charm and cynicism at the core of the new Lifetime drama. Actually, the show does a terrific job at showcasing all the behind-the-scenes drama that goes into creating a romance show such as Everlasting. It's a nuanced approach to the concept. All of the producers, directors and workers feel horrible about what they have to do for their jobs. And yet, they still get it done in the hopes of creating an entertaining TV show. That's why I have a feeling that even fans of The Bachelor will be able to appreciate what UnREAL is trying to do. It's not presenting these tropes just to laugh at them. They are introducing the concepts in order to open up a nuanced conversation about what really occurs in this world.

It helps immensely that there appears to be a history amongst the show's crew. They have done this for a while now. They know the ins and outs of what they need to get and how they need to do so. It's tragic and cruel how they have to manipulate the onscreen talent into conforming to certain ways in order to produce guilty pleasure drama. But the experienced characters just know that they have to accept that as a part of being in this business. Quinn is a brash character at the helm of this chaos. And yet, her ambition to create an entertaining TV show is apparent in every single action she does. She has no problem casting emotionally volatile or traumatized women in order to create stakes for the show. She recognizes the demands of the business and the realities of what the audience expects from this type of show. She has to be racist because America is largely racist. It's horrifying that that means a white woman who could easily fulfill the wife role has to be the first contestant to meet the bachelor searching for love. It's even more disturbing how several women in the middle are largely just there to be made fun of.

Only five of the contestants are given personalities and identities though. That largely happens because the producing team is trying to forcing them into character constructs for the show. They each have backstories and are much more than the details Quinn and her team want to put on display. And yet, those details and soundbites are what makes the show so entertaining to watch in the early rounds. Britney is revealed to have a tragic backstory about being in the foster care system and needing to get emancipated. And yet, she is quickly established by Quinn as the villain amongst the women simply because she's sexually aggressive with Adam in their very first encounter. Faith is a woman with feelings and emotions but all anyone seems to care about is her appearance and the fact that she is virgin. Mary doesn't want to be seen as the desperate older woman who wants to find love. She is a strong woman who stood up for herself and her family in the face of abuse. But that initial attribute is all that Quinn cares about. And lastly, there are the other two women - whose names I didn't catch. The one who Adam is instantly attracted to and wants to sleep with and the other who is throwing up in her room in order to appear to keep up her figure. There is darkness and deep emotions surrounding all of these women. But the show finds importance in making the production team not care about any of that if it means they can get high ratings. It's uncomfortable but that also adds to the appeal of the show.

These characters are torn over why they are doing all of this. Adam has simply agreed to the show for the good publicity. It's interesting how he was cast because he is somewhat in the public spotlight as the heir to a successful hotel chain. That breaks off from The Bachelor mold somewhat but never actually distracts from the action. He's a playboy who doesn't want to play by the rules. That's usually such a tired cliche but UnREAL finds relevancy in the archetype once more. That quality will actually make him quite scandalous the deeper into the season the show goes as the intimacy grows amongst the contestants and all their truths and secrets come to light.

At the center of all of this for the actual show though is Rachel Goldberg who is returning to the production team after a massive breakdown during the last season finale. It's epic and mysterious seeing how everyone reacts to her being back on the set. She is wonderfully great at her job - much more so than any of her co-workers. She is able to get Adam to play along with the show while still messing with the formula. She's the one who gets him to keep in Faith over Britney. She's able to use that to form an instant connection with Britney that allows her to get a soundbite that is so much more than her furiously storming off after not getting chosen to continue on with the show. Rachel is very effective at her job. But she also has much more reluctance than anyone else on the crew. That doesn't put her at odds with Quinn though. They actually have a friendship where Quinn admires all that Rachel is able to do for her. And yet, Quinn still serves as Rachel's boss. She still furiously cries out whenever Rachel goes rogue and leaves her waiting for something truly amazing to happen. She also lords over the fact that Rachel needs something from the show. She produced high ratings for that finale meltdown but that meant several legal repercussions for her. Rachel is trying to get better. Coming back to this setting probably won't help with that all that much. But because of Quinn, she could get all those legal problems thrown away and not have to do her required community service. That's enough for her right now. But will it all be worth it by season's end - for both the show and the show-within-the-show?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Return" was written by Marti Noxon & Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and directed by Peter O'Fallon.
  • It's really funny that the host of Everlasting doesn't really have a personality at all. Quinn is the one running this show and not him. That's a very important distinction. Though the show could benefit from recognizing that the host needs to guide things for the audience in more ways than simply asking Adam how he's feeling before he meets the girls and explaining the elaborate ceremony determining their fates.
  • There's also some kind of romantic tension between Rachel and a cameraman, Jeremy. Though things ended when she had her big meltdown and now he's engaged to someone else - who also happens to now work on the show.
  • Also, Quinn is sleeping with the creator of the show, Chet. She may find him annoying when it comes to the production but there's obviously some connection between them.
  • Rachel is pretty adamant about not doing any of the traveling shoots. I'm guessing that won't really stick in the future though.
  • Loved Rachel's "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shit. That tells the audience so much about her character in comparison to the rest of the women immediately.