[Warning: This posts contains some very minor spoilers. It doesn’t reveal any huge surprises and won’t necessarily ruin the show for you, but if you’re the kind of purist who insists on knowing absolutely nothing before you watch something, you should proceed semi-cautiously.]
Set behind the scenes of the fictional but very Bachelor-esque dating show Everlasting, UnREAL is a cutting takedown of the genre - from the villainous manipulation of contestants by producers, the tokenism of racial diversity and the bed-hopping shenanigans that go on off camera. Inspired by co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, itself inspired by Shapiro’s nine seasons producing The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise in the US, this critically acclaimed, deliciously soapy dramedy is a heightened and exaggerated take on ‘reality’ TV that uncovers some seriously disturbing aspects of the highly manufactured nature of the genre.
If you still feel good about yourself and reality TV by the end of this, we'll be surprised...
Reality TV stars are powerless pawns
With reality TV a veteran genre, there’s an implicit understanding in the audience that contestants know exactly what they’re in for – the exploitation, the manipulation, the humiliation. The truth is, on dating shows at least, even the most elementary of rights can be taken away from you. Like say, the right to pee when you need to.
“You truly cannot know what you’re signing up for,” Shapiro told the LA Times. “You can’t understand the power of editing. There are a lot of really smart people making these shows. It’s a chess game you can’t win.”
Contestants, if not cast to type are soon stereotyped and molded to play a particular role. On Everlasting, conniving Executive Producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) has it all worked out: the wife material (that is, to paraphrase Shapiro - submissive, sexy but not slutty), the brazen strumpet, the angry black woman, the crazy one, the desperate older single mum.
“There are so many despicable things which go into getting people to behave a certain way,” co-creator Marti Noxon told The Huffington Post. “You know, sort of the reality of unscripted [television] is that you’re taking non-actors and forcing them to play roles, which causes a lot of psychological and emotional damage. These are not actors. They don’t know what their script is.”
The Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss’s reported hope is that the audience will love the guy and hate the girls. In the real world of UnREAL, our Brit bachelor figure Adam (Freddie Stroma) is considered a “manwhore” (Noxon’s words). The whole premise of Bachelor-type shows - one man and a harem of women competing for his love holed up in a luxury LA mansion - of course casts the men that way and sanctions that behaviour.
Romance is dead
Sure, there’s the horse-drawn carriages, fairy lights, roses and romantic dates but UnREAL reveals the brutal artifice of it all. As Quinn derisively explains to a naïve crewmember in the engagement episode, “They’re not doves, they’re just pigeons painted white”.
Illusion is the name of the game - in the real Bachelor, the rose ceremony is said to be filmed at 5am to generate the most drama from sleep deprived, alcohol-fuelled contestants.
But there's plenty of people doin' it behind the scenes
Though The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise has become raunchier over the years it appears fairly chaste compared to what -apparently - goes on behind the scenes. UnREAL gives an accurate depiction of the sex between crew members according to veteran reality show producer Amy Wruble, former writer/producer on The Bachelor. In UnREAL, EP Quinn is having an affair with Everlasting’s drug-addled creator Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko), while star producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is in an on-off relationship with studly cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly).
“Reality shows often involve travel, severely long hours and major stress,” wrote Wruble. “These intense conditions tend to produce a lot of ‘showmances’ or ‘locationships’ between crew members. Most of them don't last once the season is over.”
The extent of producer manipulation is seriously disturbing
"There is a basic assumption that reality TV is staged but a total lack of understanding of how," Shapiro said.
In the industry, it’s called being “produced,” subtle or not so subtle manipulation of contestants and scenarios for the desired result, namely drama.
“Reality is not documentary,” says Wruble. “There isn't always time to wait for things to happen naturally. Producers help guide the action by working one-on-one with key cast members. It can be subtle - say, crafting an interview question to plant seeds of doubt, like, ‘Do you think Britney is really here for the right reasons?’ Or a producer might be more direct, offering, ‘If it were me, I'd confront her about being so selfish.’ You're not telling a cast member to do something they would never do in real life - you're just giving them the kick in the ass to do what their heart desires, which of course will make great TV.”
In UnREAL, producers are pitted against each other and offered cash bonuses if they can get one their girls into the best position to enhance the narrative - for example laying the kindling for an explosive cat fight, with one woman emerging the villain. Shapiro admitted that though cash bonuses weren’t offered on The Bachelor, “if you’re doing a job well, you get promoted”.
Of course, the makers of UnREAL have taken considerable license, but producer manipulation can be downright Machiavellian.
“I knew a casting director who was a big deal working for some major shows and they cast people who they know have flaws or are unstable,” Noxon said. “In many cases, for example, they’ll cast someone they know has borderline personality disorder, because they know that’s good TV.”
"[Producers are] creating fiction with people who aren't given scripts,” Noxon said. “They don't know the roles they're going to play. So, how do you get them to play those parts? You manipulate them. You put them in situations that cause them to be vulnerable, and it's pretty ugly."
“They have a ‘job’ to do and their job is to get the drama going, and they will do whatever it takes,” former The Bachelor contestant Melissa Schreiber said.
“When I got sent home, I refused to talk in the limo and my producer tried so hard to get me to talk - she begged, she cried, and she told me that her job was on the line if I didn’t talk.”
In UnREAL, this idea plays out to very dramatic effect.
And reality producers have a hard time sleeping at night
At one point Quinn ruefully laments producing another season of Everlasting. “I cannot live through another year of bulimia and side-boob covered in glitter,” she quips. Early on in the series, Rachel colourfully correlates the role of reality show producer to “Satan’s asshole”. A feminist left emotionally fragile after an onscreen breakdown in Everlasting’s previous season, she wrestles with her role as master manipulator. But knocking on poverty’s door, it’s a deal she’s made with the devil (in this case Quinn) and what’s more, she’s damn good at it.
Undoubtedly, the character is informed by Shapiro’s own experiences. Also a feminist, she was morally conflicted producing The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, cuttingly describing the experience as “like sending a vegan to a slaughterhouse and telling them they have to be really good at killing cows.”
“In college, I’d be sitting in a feminist seminar debating how much it would cost to sell your soul. And I’d always say, like, $50 million,” she said. “And you find out it’s actually just a paycheck. The desperation of staying alive is intense - 18 years of your parents building and defining your morality is just gone.”
Ultimately, Shapiro even considered suicide to get out of her watertight, punitive contract.
Dating shows are pretty much WO (Whites Only)
As The Daily Beast’s Jennifer L. Pozner puts it, “Skinny, weepy white women + horny, wealthy white men = love.”
From the opening episode, UnREAL takes aim at the tokenism of racial diversity on Bachelor and Bachelorette style dating shows, underscoring the perception that interracial dating doesn’t sit well with American audiences. When African American contestant Shamiqua alights a horse-drawn carriage playing the violin no less, Quinn calls “Cut!” Shamiqua can by no means be the first cab off the rank; after all she’s black and therefore won’t come within a sea of rose petals near the finale.
“She’s black,” says the caustic Quinn. “First girl out of the carriage is always a wifey and that is not a wifey….. It is not my fault that America’s racist, people. Get a new girl out here.”
An investigation by pop culture website Fusion (which is incidentally part owned by Disney’s ABC network, home of The Bachelor / Bachelorette franchise) found that no black contestant has lasted longer than five weeks on The Bachelor or Bachelorette (a typical series runs for 10) with 59% lasting only two weeks. In the history of the franchise all 11 bachelorettes have been white and there’s only ever been one non-white Bachelor - Latino Juan Pablo Galavis.
Still, a class action lawsuit against the franchise alleging racial discrimination in 2012 was dismissed and intriguingly, racial diversity seems to have increased since then.
In a subversive move, series two of UnREAL will feature a black suitor in Everlasting, pipping its real counterpart to the post.
You, the audience, are part of the problem
“Let’s give ‘em something’ that they want. Ponies! Princesses! Romances! Love! I don’t know, it’s all a bunch of crap anyways...” says Quinn in the opening scene of UnREAL.
The undercurrent running through the show is that producers and TV executives are just delivering what the audience wants, a notion that rings true with The Bachelor / Bachelorette franchise still a ratings draw card. The implication is that as an audience, we’re still buying in to the idea of true televised love - the happily-ever-after princess fantasy.
But the flipside of that coin is a dark and dirty one says Noxon.
“There’s such an undercurrent of bullying that goes on in the making of these shows and then with the people who watch them,” she told The Huffington Post. “I think we watch these shows like that a lot, like, “I’m so much better than that person. I would never do that thing……. You’re encouraged to make fun of people and there’s a real cost to that.”
UnREAL invites us to be complicit in the very meta machinations. Be warned, you’ll likely feel very dirty watching it. But you won’t be able to look away.
UnREAL airs Mondays at 8:30pm (AEDT) on SBS 2. Missed the first episode? Catch up with SBS On Demand.