Everlasting, the show-within-a-show at the dark centre of new American television series UnREAL, is a fantasy blend of champagne cocktails, pool parties and true love. Everlasting is a Bachelor-style game show in which a dozen immaculately groomed women compete for a handsome millionaire husband, and its relationship to real life is, like any ‘reality’ show, non-existent. Nothing goes to air on Everlasting that has not been scripted, staged, and edited for maximum controversy, and it is the lives of the coterie of producers responsible for creating this drama that form the greater part of UnREAL.
Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is Everlasting’s best producer, intermittently capable of recognising just how ruthless and deceitful she is. She sidles up to each contestant like a no-bullshit confidante, but her true allegiance is to executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), who barks commands into Rachel’s earpiece from Everlasting’s control room. Quinn’s overriding objective is to deliver a television show packed with catfights and tears, and Rachel’s task is to make that happen. Rachel tells herself she hates her job, but getting contestants to crack on camera is a daily puzzle that she’s eager to solve.
A rich girl on the run from failed romance, personal breakdown and financial debt, Rachel is not a straightforward villain – not nearly as one-dimensional as the onscreen ‘bitches’ she is required to concoct. She bunks down every night in a lighting truck, and walks around set with a messy ponytail and a grey t-shirt that reads ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’. It is Rachel’s so-called feminism that is her primary source of self-delusion: despite the multiple gratuitous humiliations she foists upon Everlasting’s female contestants, she has convinced herself that her cause is a just one.
In one episode, Rachel muses upon how ‘crazy empowering’ it might be for a contestant to confront her abusive ex-husband on air; when their meeting veers way off-script, Rachel is the first to suggest releasing the footage to real life feminist gossip website Jezebel to help salvage Everlasting’s reputation. Between Rachel and Quinn – the kind of coiffed, slim, muscular executive that any number of ‘women’s media’ sites would be happy to celebrate – UnREAL exposes the limits of contemporary liberal feminism, the kind that generates clicks and bucks for a handful of people but has precious little to offer any woman whose life falls outside the media cycle.
Whether the female creators of UnREAL (Marti Noxon, who was a writer and producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who once worked on the US version of The Bachelor) have intentionally crafted this critique can be difficult to tell. As it moves back and forth between the glitz of Everlasting and the sordid manipulation of the show’s makers, UnREAL itself becomes a strange, unstable mixture of soap opera and satire.
Each episode of UnREAL delivers the kind of ridiculous plot twists that make reality TV shows so addictive to begin with; in our thirst for drama, we’re caught between wishing Rachel would demonstrate a moral compass, and hoping that she doesn’t. The contestants know, or at least suspect, that Everlasting is geared towards their public humiliation, but they are, for the most part, willing to participate, on the faint promise that they might emerge as the winner. Meanwhile, the posh English suitor, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), makes frequent attempts to sabotage the producers’ plans. He thinks he’s morally superior to the typecasting and manipulation that is Everlasting’s stock-in-trade, which makes he and Rachel a perfect match for each other.
As the first season of UnREAL reaches the three-quarter mark (having begun to generate the kind of buzz that any new reality series might be pleased with, the show has recently been renewed for a second season), the biggest plot intrigue is whether Rachel will fall for the mirage that it’s her day job to promote, and reveal herself to be no better or smarter than the contestants whose lives she spends her days destroying.