Monday, June 8, 2015

REVIEW: 'UnREAL' - Rachel Uses a Contestant's Sudden Tragedy to Better Herself in 'Relapse'

Lifetime's UnREAL - Episode 1.02 "Relapse"

A family tragedy strikes one of the girls. Quinn continues pushing boundaries when she offers a cash bonus to Jay, Shia or Rachel to create this season's villain out of the remaining girls. Rachel's old laptop falls into the wrong hands and threatens to expose intimate details of her past relationship with Jeremy.

UnREAL went to some dark and incredibly tragic and real places in its first episode. And yet, the show took things to a whole other level with Rachel manipulating the death of one contestant's father in order to create a new villain for the season just so that she could get a cash advance in order to buy her personal belongings back from her former roommate. That's a dark place that the show wants to take the audience to. In the first episode, it was really blunt in showing this as the way of life for the producers of Everlasting. They have certain archetypes and requirements that they have to meet and create in order to build an entertaining season of the show. That means that the producers have to put their personal feelings aside and use the contestants in a way that is most beneficial to themselves. It's frank but it's also positioned as what Rachel has to do for her job.

The whole mystery of why Rachel disappeared for months following her big blow up during the last season finale of Everlasting as well as her relationship with Jeremy aren't the most engaging stories happening right now. And yet, they do feel personal to Rachel. Shiri Appleby is great in the leading role mixing the reluctance and realism of this job. Even though the specifics are unclear and not that interesting, they do bring urgency to her story. There's a reason why Rachel needs to work this hard at her job. She needs the money in order to be a better person. She has hurt so many people over the course of her employment on Everlasting. And yet, she is still around because she is very effective at her job and knows what will bring big ratings to the show. She is trying to rebuild her life. The show may not be the best place for her to do that. She may, in fact, be slipping back into those bad routines.

However, that is engaging drama for an episode because Rachel's concerns far outweigh those of the contestants. Rachel needing to get her computer back so she doesn't embarrass her old boyfriend again doesn't come anywhere close to the death of a parent. And yet, Rachel works hard to get that cash advance. She desperately needs it. She hates what Anna is going through. This is a tragedy to her. She no longer wants to do the show. She just wants to be there for her father and younger brother. It's Rachel's job to get Anna to fulfill the contract she signed. It does make the producers seem dispassionate about this tragedy. Quinn hates it because it means that a promising candidate for the villain position will want to leave and not come back. Rachel has more empathy. She's the one who informs Anna about what has happened in the outside world. She's the one who comforts Anna when she's crying in the bar bathroom over not getting to say goodbye to her father. And yet, Rachel is still doing her job first and trying to get Anna to compile in order to make an event for the episode. It's manipulation that is devastating. Anna doesn't want her personal tragedy to be used against her in a way that is disingenuous. Quinn can stage whatever she wants in order to explain Anna off the show. Rachel is aware of that but still feeds into the machine in the hopes of getting that prize money.

Anna ultimately becomes aware that Rachel is doing her job above anything else at the moment. The one person she was close to on the production team doesn't actually care about her. That's a moment of realization that all of the girls have to come to at some point. Rachel promises to make Anna's edit the version that she wants and not what the show needs. Rachel allows Anna to go home and bury her father. But she is also able to get Anna to come back to the show by manipulating the elements in Anna's personal live. Anna may not have a real chance with Adam. But everyone will say that she does in order to string out a compelling story for the show. Even though Anna is a lawyer, she is not returning to the show to fall in love with Adam or tell her story. She is returning as the new villain for the season. That's a narrative shockingly created by Rachel. She did her job and got the reward. Sure, it was at the cost of not treating Anna with respect as a human being. That's the part of the job that annoys Rachel the most. And yet, she is still willing to play along because she needs the show just as much as the show needs her.

However, all of that work doesn't pay off for Rachel. She compromised all of her values in order to manipulate Anna and her family during their most vulnerable time. She got the money. And yet, she doesn't get it in time. Her former roommate still releases all of that personal information about her relationship with Jeremy to the entire staff at Everlasting. Rachel may be very effective at her job. But she is still causing the people around her a lot of pain. She's doing whatever it takes to do her job well in order to build a better life. But the cost of her work isn't instantly paying off for her. In fact, things are only getting worse - which should continue to make for very compelling drama in the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Relapse" was written by Elizabeth Benjamin and directed by David Solomon.
  • Quinn is also so much more than the demanding boss who doesn't care how her producers get great footage as long as they do so. Her relationship with the show's creator was briefly touched on in the premiere. And now, there's some actually stakes to that story as Quinn wants a life of happiness and not one where she's just the other woman. That's a very relatable story even though she's still having an affair with a married man.
  • How much is the audience suppose to read into that shower scene between Rachel and Adam? They are obviously flirtatious. But are they being presented as an actual couple? Or as Rachel building that connection with him to get whatever she wants for the show?
  • After all the turmoil the show puts Anna through, they still think it necessary to ramp up the stakes and make her the last girl to be picked at the episode ending ceremony. It's a moment the producers created and won't effect her passion for the show. It's still a big emotional wave that she has to ride in the end.
  • And things are probably only to get worse for Anna because Rachel has painted her as the villain. Everyone else can have bitchy moments, but Rachel will have to make sure that Anna can legitimately shape the story of the season. That's a daunting task that has already used up a lot of emotional turmoil in this episode.
  • Unfortunately, Jay is really accurate in pointing out how poorly people of color do on these types of shows. It's the inherent racism of the industry that the show demands these women be either an Omarosa or a NeNe Leakes. One is willing to play because she just wants to use the show to promote her business. The other actually wants love. It's also interesting how upfront Jay is with these women about what he needs from them while Rachel and Shia need to actually manipulate them.