There was a directorial move that happened over and over in the first season of UnREAL, Lifetime's excellent new series about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting. A scene would start with a tight shot of a moment between members of Everlasting's cast, and just as it starts to feel like a genuine moment, the camera peels back to show the artifice behind it all. Just beyond that real moment is an array of lights, cameras, and crew; all peering intently, trying to figure out how they can warp this scene into something that will provide the most entertaining television.
Every character has to remind themselves and the people around them that they're crafting a show, with almost every episode featuring some variation of the line "none of this is real anyway." But is it quite so simple? Sure, there's manufactured drama and contrived scenarios galore in UnREAL and Everlasting. Yet there are real stories unfolding too. A mentally ill woman desperately trying to cling to her job and her sanity at the same time, a repressed woman coming to terms with her sexuality, a rich playboy seeking redemption. Therein lies the magnificent tension of the show, the way that reality tends to bleed all over "reality."
UnREAL is a deeply cynical show. It shows the top-down process of a group of ruthless, ratings-minded people packaging up the myth of True Love to an American audience that will eat it up. They've gotten to a point where they can predict how the public will react to every event, coming up with preset rules to follow: "sluts get cut," black women never win, the suitor that all of these women are competing for has to be likable. In last Monday's season finale, executive producer Chet thinks he's come up with an incredible idea -- having bad girl Britney come back in the final round after an early exit at the beginning of the season -- only to be reminded that the show has done the very same thing three previous times. Everlasting is programmed to a tee, but sold under the illusion that it's getting bigger and better and fresher.
The producers of Everlasting are the means by which the show is able to concoct the best possible results. And the contestants are merely their playthings -- twist them up and watch them go. But the level of gamesmanship goes beyond that. Everybody is producing everybody. As a result, there is plotting to the show in the truest sense. Many of the best moments come from the complex web of deceit the writers spin: a character manipulating another character into manipulating another character; or somebody thinking they know the game somebody else is playing, only for that person to be playing a second game. Lies, both big and small, are being sold everywhere.
And perhaps the biggest lie of all is the idea that any of these people can find happiness and fulfillment, either professionally or romantically. If that's the goal, then they're searching in the wrong place. After all, some of these women are looking for love in front of a camera, and the audience on the other side watches with hope that somebody will find it too. One of the most brilliant aspects of the season finale is that even Quinn and Rachel start to buy into the lies they sell, mistakenly thinking that they've found something real in Chet and Adam, respectively. You may not be able to find love in a hopeless place, but UnREAL deftly fools everyone into believing they can.