Checking in on Lifetime's UnREAL

Why We Are Pretending UnREAL Is Telling Us Something About Reality Television We Didn’t Already Know?

July 08, 2015 / by / 1 Comment

My grandmother likes to tell the story of the time my uncle learned how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in pre-school.

That day, he was wearing his favorite red shirt. And although the class was going to be taught by a stranger and not his teacher, he was not one to say no to a free sandwich. He followed the directions to the letter, but found when he had completed the task, the stranger gave no further instruction. While his other classmates waited patiently, my uncle glanced to his left, then his right, then shoved the sandwich down the front of his corduroys. The stranger came forward, chuckling, and pointed off to the corner of the classroom. They told him to smile. He was on Candid Camera.

I cannot help but remember this story as Lifetime’s UnREAL – a scripted series following the cast and crew of a fictional reality dating show more than a little reminiscent of The Bachelor – crosses the midpoint of its first season. The show portrays reality television as sadistic and ruthlessly contrived, and the press before it even premiered praised UnREAL for blowing the lid off reality television and revealing this genre’s terrible underbelly. But did it really take a show like UnREAL to convince us that unscripted television is often manipulative and dishonest towards its subjects? The day he ended up on Candid Camera, my then-three-year-old uncle certainly knew it. And that was in 1962.

So why is it that critics and viewers are behaving as if UnREAL is a grand exposé? The Washington Post claimed the show “exposed the fraud” of dating shows like The Bachelor, and countless interviews and reviews allude to pulling back the curtain, to revealing the harsh reality, to skewering the genre, to finally telling the truth. Former reality show contestants have come forward to substantiate the show’s claims. The show’s creators themselves have stated that the show will make viewers watch reality television in a different way, effectively dismantling the fairytale fantasy the shows work doggedly to construct. But are people watching reality television because they genuinely believe in it? And what’s more, why are we acting as if we are surprised by the message that UnREAL is trying to deliver us?

Certainly, the points UnREAL makes about reality television are valid, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. It asserts that reality television is heavily edited, such that situations can go from harmless to heated with just a few switched clips. It claims that it provokes and manipulates its subjects, and that these subjects in turn are not on the show for love, but instead self-promotion.

These are all complaints regularly raised during any reunion special for The Bachelor, and the show has taken on several of these issues itself. While Michelle Money was portrayed as the season’s villain on Brad Womack’s season of The Bachelor, she sobbingly accused the show of giving her a terrible edit and was subsequently shown as a gentle and sensitive woman on Bachelor Pad and Bachelor In Paradise. When Bentley Williams faked his way through Ashley Hebert’s season, pretending to care for her so he could promote his business, the show milked the deception as an exciting plotline.

Perhaps the most frightening allegation UnREAL makes is that dangerous contestants are deliberately selected in order to guarantee big personalities. On the show, one contestant is revealed to have been institutionalized twice. Even one of the fellow crew members seems shocked that this contestant was allowed on the show, but we’ve already seen the proof that reality television has a history of hiring and taking advantage of mentally unstable individuals. American Idol allowed Paula Goodspeed to audition on the show, even after judge Paula Abdul had told producers that Goodspeed had been stalking her for over a decade prior.

Moreover, the practice of allowing a reality television star to date a potentially violent individual has already had horrifying results. In 2009, VH1’s Megan Wants A Millionaire was pulled prematurely from the air when one of the contestants, Ryan Jenkins, committed suicide after an arrest warrant was issued for the murder of swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore. Fiore’s body had been discovered inside a suitcase in a dumpster, and her body was so horribly mutilated that it was only successfully identified by the serial numbers on her breast implants. The incident was so devastating that VH1 ceased to produce any more dating reality programs. UnREAL’s intended suckerpunch of having a twice-institutionalized contestant certainly pales in comparison.

I will give UnREAL credit, however, for discussing the uncomfortable racial politics when it comes to casting reality television. When a black woman is the first potential partner to meet the show’s suitor, the executive producer exclaims that the first woman out of the carriage should be wife material and a black woman isn’t “wifey.” However, contestants on The Bachelor themselves have made better, more nuanced commentary about its racial dynamics, sometimes even while they’re on the show.

Last year, The Bachelorette had to confront the racial tensions underlying its mostly-white cast after a contestant grumbled that the show had saved “the two blackies.” The show was surprisingly careful and mature in handling this controversy, airing a statement by one of the men, Marquel Martin, in which he spoke of the experience of being a black man and how no matter his educational background, his career or his actions, his race will always be the first thing he is perceived by. But before you think this incident opened the show’s eyes, fan-favorite Martin, who would have been the series first black Bachelor, was passed over for overwhelmingly uncharismatic farmer Chris Soules. That season, only one woman of color was cast, and she was eliminated in the third week after receiving virtually no screen time. UnREAL itself jokingly gave one its black contestants “three episodes tops.”

While it is certainly not the only series created in response to The Bachelor – the comedy series Burning Love parodied the show’s ridiculousness, while the reality dating program Flavor of Love was created to have a show with a black Bachelor – it is the only one credited with showing us the truth about reality television. But did we not know reality television was demeaning when contestants on Flavor of Love were given new names like “Peaches,” “Bubblez” and the incomparably foul “Red Oyster”? Did we not know reality television was racist when contestants on The Bachelorette told us themselves? Can viewers not be trusted to intuit on their own when the programming they are viewing might be, for lack of a better term, unreal?

Or perhaps the issue here is a matter of dissonance. We aren’t watching reality television because we believe in it. We have seen enough seasons of The Bachelor to know that a fairytale ending is ultimately a fluke. UnREAL claims to deliver the goods, but on a show where the Christian girl is named Faith, things just feel a little obvious. Reality television doesn’t seem to just be interested in selling us the fantasy, it delights in showing us the cruel machinations themselves: Bentley Williams’s cruelty and deception becoming a plot arc, Michelle Money rising from the ashes with a reputation reborn. It seems the big reveal here has nothing to do with reality television, but instead the people who consume it. After all, what would it say about us as a culture to admit that though we know these shows are contrived and ruthless, that television has thrived on sadism long before the rise of reality TV, we still keep tuning in?

Lauren Prastien watches entirely too much television. Otherwise, she is a Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. @scentofaviking