I started watching UnREAL on Thursday. It is now Saturday, and I have just finished watching all 10 episodes of the 1st season of this outstanding scripted dramedy. UnREAL is about the behind-the-scenes action on a fictional reality TV show called “Enchanted”.
I am a huge fan of reality TV. As a teacher, it is my job to be sociable, patient, friendly, and emotionally available to students during the day, so I look forward to getting home from school, downloading a reality show, and being able to zone-out and observe different personality types and drama without having to react to them…or smile…or respond in any way. Therefore, I find these shows highly entertaining, and, yes, relaxing.
While I am a fan, I would also be an idiot if I were to deny the fact that the aspects of humanity that reality TV shows use to create drama are primarily negative. I believe that my life has been positively impacted by some of the stories I have seen shared on reality TV, but there are also many values that are promoted on most of these shows that are disgusting: judging women and men based on their physical appearance alone, taking advantage of people’s insecurities and/or mental health issues, and reinforcing racist, sexist, homophobic, and various other stereotypes about people.
UnREAL is the first scripted show that I have watched that honestly deals with the types of people who would choose to produce and work on reality TV shows. For example, the show’s protagonist, Rachel, is a producer. She is willing to use any information and any angle she can think of (and she can think of many since she is a highly intelligent and perceptive person) to get something exciting for the cameras.
One of the characters on “Enchanted” is Mary, who is a single mother, and she recently got out of an abusive relationship. For “good TV” Rachel finds Mary’s abusive ex-partner and brings him on the show to confront Mary and the “Bachelor” character, Adam, without Mary or Adam’s awareness that the ex was going to suddenly appear. A fight ensues, and Mary’s situation becomes incredible tragic (likely due to this and because of another factor that a different drama-hungry producer on the show stoops to an all-time low to create) as the series progresses.
This situation reminds me that drama is exciting, and it is a great distraction from my own life, but the lengths reality TV shows creators and producers will go to to provide me with “entertainment” can irreparably harm real people’s lives. Since I consume those shows, I am also contributing to the destruction of people’s lives.
Even though it would be easy to shrug it off and say these reality TV show characters/people/performers are asking for it by going on these shows instead of getting “normal” day jobs, UnREAL highlights how many of these shows are using desperate people, who may have pre-existing mental health problems, and exploiting them. I think that part of the stigma surrounding mental health is that people are blamed for their sickness, and the ridicule that is heaped on people who act “crazy” is somehow viewed as completely acceptable. I still see a variety of examples that lead me to believe that most of mainstream society still thinks that “insane” people are not sick people; instead, they’re bad people. When people who have “freak-outs” on these shows are discussed on social media, in real-life, and in the media the dialogue surrounding them must only make it that much harder for these people to move on from having a mental breakdown on national TV and build a life away from reality TV.
Most people want to claim that they are sensitive to people who are mentally ill, but based on what I have heard people say in real-life when talking about people who have been depressed, acted bizarrely, or erratically there usually seems to be a complete lack of compassion. On the one hand, people who exhibit a lack of self-control and bad behaviour should not be rewarded or given a pat on the back, but on the other hand, if a person is clearly not well or of a sound mind, does it really help to gossip about them and treat them like there’s something wrong with them?
During the summer, I biked to UBC to go to Wreck Beach. While I was locking up my bike at the tops of the stairs there was a man about 15 feet away who was screaming and shouting about “Pigs” (the police, I assume). I would characterize him as mentally-ill. He later walked around the beach area screaming at someone/something that was not there, and I am not a mental health professional, but he seemed delusional. There were a few young men across the street from the bike rack area who were taunting the man and making fun of him. When I see people, who would likely describe themselves as sane, do this sort of cruel thing it reminds me of how ignorant we all are about mental health and what it means to be mentally ill.
The biggest problem is not the man who was ranting and raving, instead it is the “sane” people who pick-on sick people, thereby increasing people’s paranoia and fear. Yet, my own choice to obsessively watch reality TV shows that do the same sort of thing, and much worse, to people who are already in a weak position in terms of their state-of-mind, makes me wonder if I am any different from those young guys who were yelling at the man who seemed mentally ill? I will keep on watching reality TV, but UnREAL provides a lot of food for thought about what I am actually taking part in when I watch these kinds of exploitative shows.
Up until now this article has been a downer, but UnREAL is not only dark and thought-provoking, it’s also hilarious. The characters are complex, lovable, imperfect, believable, and so brutally honest that a lot of the dialogue made me laugh. Shiri Appleby plays Rachel to superb perfection. Rachel does so many things wrong to other people, but we get to see that she is also seriously struggling with her mental health and her own personal life is just as negative as her work life. Rachel is always trying to figure out what she can use other people for, instead of focusing on what she can do to truly help them. I think that if people are being honest we all have the same thing in ourselves. Sometimes, I am more concerned with what I am getting out of an interaction than what I’m giving, but that is something I want to work on minimizing.
Rachel’s boss is Quinn. Quinn is played by Constance Zimmer, and she is everything you’d imagine a ruthless boss bitch would be. But, of course, Quinn also has a heart, and I felt compassion for her, even though I think her behaviour is appalling. Quinn has been having a long-term affair with the show’s executive producer/owner, Chet, played by Craig Bierko. Quinn is not as strong as she seems, and UnREAL illustrates through these characters’ personal lives that there is no on-and-off switch for using and manipulating people.
If you think it is okay to capitalize on people’s weaknesses for a reality show at any cost, then it is likely that you will do the same to people you are dating and friends with. And, they will do the same to you. Since I don’t want to give away any of the important plot points about the show, I will end my review here. If you love or hate reality TV, it doesn’t really matter, because I think this show appeals to both of those categories of people. UnREAL is a genius show in my opinion. Life is complicated, and UnREAL doesn’t shy away from looking at the darkest undercurrents of reality TV. I totally related to all of the main characters, though I’d like to believe I wouldn’t be willing to do what they do, though I’ve done some terrible things in my time. Just like Rachel, Quinn, and Chet, I’m not perfect. I am constantly trying to balance my own selfish desires with what I think will make the world a better place. UnREAL helped me feel better about myself while simultaneously encouraging me to think more deeply about the choices I make in life. Bravo to the show’s creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro!