Spoilers for season one.
We meet Rachel (Shiri Appleby) in that first high angled pan shot, wearing a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, lying on the floor of a limousine surrounded by women in ball gowns. These are the contestants – China dolls of every colour and category (the lesbian, the MILF, the virgin, the temptress, the desperate one) vying to be chosen as wife to their wealthy but plastic-y suitor, Adam (“the meat puppet”). He’s inoffensive; blandly appealing until you get to know him.
Machiavellian, conflicted and seemingly unstable, Rachel is the producer charged with manipulating a crop of wannabe wives into providing the soundbites necessary for good TV. She’s recovering from her last meltdown (teased out through the first few episodes) and seems on course for her next one by season’s end. There are love interests (good guy, bad guy, the usual) but her true nemesis is Executive Producer, Quinn played with delicious villainy by Constance Zimmer. Quinn is the caustic, alpha female who rules this matriarchal deviousness. “We’re selling true love here, true love people,” Quinn bellows and we’re off.
I love a good workplace drama. Layer on some satire, some social commentary, a strong female lead and I’m in. It’s unrelentingly cynical depiction of workplace dynamics rings true. Quinn is sleeping with her married boss, the wide-eyed intern is blowing the same boss.
I found the show at a moment when I was sick of earnest, hard working women that populate even the grittiest dramas. Even the most troubled of heroines must have some redeeming qualities – Alicia Florrick stands by her man, Carrie Mathieson is only trying to save America, Olivia Pope is hopelessly in love.*
By setting up a quintessentially patriarchal quest (“make the rich, handsome man pick me as his wife”), it is almost dystopian in its critique of reality tv and its cycle of destroying & re-building the women in its path. More than that, it satirises the romantic industrial complex itself, and our role as consumers of it. We see what makes the Cinderella fantasy run: the horse drawn carriages, the saccharine declarations of love, this cartoonish version of romance. We see the consequences of casual cruelty.
The show’s narrative engine might be romance, but it’s the possessive, complex relationship between Quinn and Rachel that is exceedingly more compelling and more important. Mentor and mentee, theirs is a competitive and manipulative friendship. The flashes of Rachel’s vulnerability make her all the more threatening; she’s an animal caught in a trap, the trap of show business, of the working world, of womanhood itself. These are not catfights; this is war. It is raw female power at its most unflattering. There’s not a whiff of likability about it. It’s a show about unapologetically morally ugly woman and the havoc that causes.
UnReal is a portrait of a friendship, of a matriarchal society run amok, of broken people pretending to be OK. And that is always compelling. It’s provocative and soapy, tackling a laundry list of serious topics: LGBTI issues, mental health, eating disorders, sexual assault and domestic violence. The dark emotional palate, and mounting pile of human wreckage make it a tale of messy morality, complex social commentary, human (melo)drama. I watched it twice during a hot, hot summer in Dublin and it exemplified the exact kind of raw, female aggression I needed. It’s smart, thoughtful, demanding television, and more than that it’s tremendous fun.
*stopped watching after season 2. Suspect this is no longer true.