Can TV do criticism? My immediate answer would be yes -- there's been a long history of TV wisemen from the robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to the faux-journalists of The Daily Show dissecting other media, often other television. Even there, though, the critique often becomes a kind of spectacle. People watch these shows to laugh, not to get legitimate insights on the objects of critique. (Well, there are certainly some people who watch The Daily Show for this, but I think even Jon Stewart would agree that the show isn't meant to substitute for the news). So, if even non-fiction shows are more entertaining than critical, how can an hour-long drama -- on Lifetime, no less -- make a serious critique of television?
That is precisely what the new series unREAL promises to do. By dramatizing the behind-the-scenes production and editing of a reality competition show (okay, it's The Bachelor), unREAL exposes and deconstructs the conventions of reality TV. The creative arcs that appear organic on reality shows are shown to be the result of cruel psychological manipulation from the producers. In one scene in "Relapse", the women take part in a candlelit "Cinderella ball" that is revealed to be nothing but a cheap set, a nice summary of the series as a whole. In this project, unREAL seems aligned with the past few decades of critical writing in the humanities, which has obsessively demystified and deconstructed everything it could get its hands on.
At the same time, unREAL is also a narrative of its own -- a story of redemption for a mentally unstable and frequently cutthroat producer, who finds herself torn between ruthless selfishness and rebellion against the show she works in. While unREAL's writers and producers aren't manipulating their cast and presenting the resulting narrative as authentic in the same way that the producers of the show-within-a-show Everlasting are, they rely on many of the same narrative techniques -- the set of "bounties" given to the producers mimic the challenge structure of reality competition shows, and the first episode's climax pivots on whether a likeable contestant will be eliminated or not. The premise of the series may suggest a revelation of the truth, but what lies behind the reality show is of course another fiction.
Still, the series makes a good show of demystifying femininity. After a first episode full of made-up glamour, "Relapse" opens with a montage of a grungy Rachel, still dressed in her "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, making crude preparations for the morning. As she sniffs her armpits and applies just enough deoderant, what becomes apparent is not the production of glamour but the production of normalcy -- the work needed to simply go out into the world, and the negotiation made between comfort, sloth and vanity. Rachel's self-production is rather low-key, emphasizing her bodily crudity and disdain for the outside world, but the indie-rock music emphasizes it as an action, not just an automatic response. And then, when she goes out into the world, the music cuts out and she has to face the depressing reality of cold craft services and another day producing reality TV.
The way this scene is shot is somewhat puzzling. The formal mechanics make it seem like Rachel moving out onto the set is a shattering of illusions -- darkness being replaced by harsh light, fist-pumping music by a mechanical voice. But the contents of the montage are hardly a glamorous facade -- if anything, they're a little demystifying in themselves, showing a female protagonist in a distinctly unglamorous and slovenly position. So what illusion is taking place in the montage, and why is it shattered at first light? Is the illusion that Rachel has any control over her own apperance, her own body? This would track well with the ending of the episode, in which Anna's appearance is distorted into something entirely removed from her own actions or agency. Or is the point that even Rachel's cynicism does not prepare her for reality?
One of the major themes of the series is performance. It's not simply that the people on reality TV are performing a role instead of being themselves -- it's the question of what roles they're asked to play, why, and how such an act is able to masquerade as real. At least in the case of Everlasting, the performance of heterosexual femininity is the key to many of these questions. The women in Everlasting -- and, implicitly, the women on The Bachelor -- are restricted to an affect of romantic longing, loving but not lustful, sometimes jealous or angry (if they're the villain) but never sad or rebellious.
The central conflict of the episode, then, is what happens when such a performance breaks down and the performer is forced into new affective territory. Anna finds herself bereaved by the death of her father, and that grief has no place in the Everlasting household. The death carries threats to Everlasting's affective regime on two fronts. On a micro level, it threatens Anna's focus on Adam and her commitment to the show's presentation of instant adoration. On the macro level, Anna's dead father shifts the show-within-a-show's erotic dynamic by displacing Adam as the sole male love object. (Everlasting would be a Freudian's field day.) It's worth noting that the first thing Anna does after learning of her father's illness is flee the set. The image of her in her princess dress with dirt-black feet is a nice summary of the thematic moment, her princess image sullied by the real world. Anna raises the terrifying prospect that the fantasy objects of reality TV may have emotional attachments beyond the central romance.
And yet, in some sense, this attachment is also a threat to unREAL as a series. If Anna, one of the contestants who has been given character and a guest-starring role, really is indifferent to Adam and the competition at large then she is at best useless and at worst counterproductive as a character. unREAL may want us to believe that reality TV is false and morally ambiguous, but it doesn't want us to believe that it's unimportant. And as a Lifetime melodrama, it demands romantic attachment no less than the reality dating show genre. Later on in the series, Anna actually does fall in love with Adam, Like Everlasting, unREAL wants to sell us romance, although it's a much different type of romance -- dark, illicit and unstable.
So Adam, somewhat improbably, leaves the set along with Anna and accompanies her to her father's funeral. While there he acts as a kind of surrogate father, providing emotional support and protecting her from confrontational relatives. In doing so, he once again becomes the focus of her emotions and restores his position as the emotional centre of Everlasting. As I mentioned above, the transfer of affection and attention from would-be husband to father and back again is very Freudian, and there's something almost disturbing or transgressive about celebrity reality star Adam at the family funeral.
Given this, I think "Relapse" underestimates the ability of reality TV to incorporate outside threats into its narrative. The visit from the family is a staple of competition reality shows, and sick relatives are often used as a way to create an emotional connection to the contestants. It's fairly easy to imagine a reality episode that unfolds exactly this way, with Anna's father's death creating sympathy for her and a closer connection to Adam. It even makes the bachelor himself look good. And indeed, this is how "Relapse" plays out, with Anna's visit home allowing Adam to show his good qualities and grow closer to both Anna and Rachel. Perhaps the narrowness of acceptable narratives in Everlasting is a way to avoid revealing the artificial narrative of unREAL.
The B-plot here is somewhat perfunctory. Rachel's old roommate blackmails her for owed rent money. What's most notable is that the video she uses as blackmail is a fairly innocuous recording of Rachel and ex-boyfriend Jeremy making out on the beach. It doesn't seem like something that would shock the jaded crew of Everlasting. Maybe the suggestion is it's a sex tape, but it's unlike unREAL to not be explicit about these things. Ultimately, it seems like what Rachel really wants to avoid is exposing her own emotional vulnerability. This episode doesn't really explore her feelings on this matter, instead using the blackmail as motivation for Rachel's ultimate betrayal -- editing Anna into a psycho villain.
The C-plot is more interesting, if perhaps not as developed as I would have liked. Jay attempts to coax the two black women he is "producing" to act the part of the sassy-on-the-verge-of-crazy black woman. One refuses, citing her dignity, and the other -- Athena -- accepts, citing her small business and the need for publicity. unREAL suggests that race is performed just as much as gender on reality TV, with black women who don't conform to the limited roles available to them ignored and quickly dispatched (as is the woman who refuses to play Omarosa here). Neither woman really makes the right decision, because there isn't a right decision to make -- to refuse to take part is simply to disappear, and the pragmatic reasons that Athena names shouldn't be dismissed. Then again, this is how Rachel and Quinn justify their own participation in a crooked system -- that to not participate is to become irrelevant.
Athena makes her mark by immediately accusing an innocent white woman of racism, thus fulfilling the fears of definitely-not-racist white people everywhere. This, too, nicely captures mainstream culture at the present moment: a superficial version of identity politics used to power the same old spectacles. Witness the way that Rachel and Quinn use feminist rhetoric to justify their terrible behaviour and egg their female charges into fighting each other. Ultimately, the Jay/Athena plotline opens up a very promising avenue of critique for unREAL -- one which it unfortunately doesn't explore that much. Over the course of the season to come, unREAL marginalizes this plotline to focus on a love triangle between white people, which, not to belabour the point, is exactly what happens in Everlasting and what unREAL purports to denounce.
In the end, Rachel submits to the titular "relapse", giving up her moral attempts to subvert the genre. Anna becomes edited into a psycho villain, the reasons behind her actions entirely cut out. This is perhaps the most potent act of demystification that unREAL performs, showing how anyone can become a hero or villain at the whim of the producers. When they are not enticed to act in a way that fits a stereotype, that stereotype can be thrust upon them by omission. Even if the narrative portion of unREAL unfolds in ways disturbingly similar to the genre it skewers, its critique of reality TV gives its viewers the tools to demystify any narrative, even that of unREAL itself. Maybe this is the best possible outcome of critique on TV -- not that a TV show does the critique for us, but that it gives us the ability to perform critique ourselves.
 I use the word "melodrama" here not as a pejorative but as a genre. As a feminine genre, melodrama is typically disrespected and legitimated even less than male-oriented "low" genres like science-fiction and crime. Of course, there's also a lot of bad melodrama, and I don't want to excuse overwrought writing under the name of genre, nor argue that we necessarily need to treat all genres as equally valid. But unREAL is an example of how a melodrama can be well-written and even engage in social critique.