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UnREAL: The Drama of Meaningless Work

The spoof reality show doesn't depict female empowerment, but a toxic office culture.


There are no heroines in UnREAL. There’s only Rachel (Shiri Appleby), the morally roughed up, psychologically exhausted producer of Everlasting, a Bachelor-type television show on which women line up in crappy satin evening gowns to win the hand of a suitor. In theory, Rachel’s endurance at her awful job was rewarded with a promotion, but that barely lasted the span of the first episode of the second season, premiering this month on Lifetime. Quinn (Constance Zimmer), her boss and the erstwhile executive producer of the show, doesn’t give up control that easily. At the first sign of a problem—Quinn’s slithery ex, Chet (Craig Bierko), is back from the jungle and looking to regain command himself—Quinn takes the show back, relegating Rachel to second fiddle once more.

The show has now set this betrayal up as a central conflict of the second season. Rachel’s already gone behind Quinn’s back to a network suit, complaining that the war with Chet is a distraction from Everlasting’s groundbreaking use of a black suitor this season. But instead of restoring Rachel to the executive producer’s throne, the network installs Coleman (Michael Rady), a rising star, to supervise the entire show. By the end of last night’s episode, Quinn had already discovered that Rachel had betrayed her, and Rachel nearly had sex with Coleman on her desk. (Are you keeping up? A dizzying pace is one of UnREAL’s trademarks, perhaps to mimic the frenetic velocity of television production.)

This would all fit nicely into an ordinary show about power, one in which titans do battle for some metaphorical crown, but here it’s confusing. The fact is that Rachel’s job makes her miserable, keeps her in a headspace where the only way is manipulation, the only reality the approval of your boss. She’s made some claims about how proud she is to have a black suitor on the show, but the endorsement rings a little hollow. While we will all, in our lives, chase a thing or two that make us unhappy, to the dismay of friends and family, in Rachel’s case the choice is becoming inexplicable. Twice, she’d blown up this job; twice, she’s taken it back. Self-reinvention is hard to imagine, but it’s rarely this hard to imagine.

Or maybe I’m being too hard on the plot, which after all doesn’t matter. UnREAL runs on atmosphere, and perhaps more peculiarly, on nihilism. There have been shows with a cynical view of human nature on television before UnREAL, like Netflix’s The Fall, but usually they involve more easily identifiable crimes than the murky territory in which Rachel and her colleagues work. Just last night we watched Rachel shove a claustrophobic contestant in a room for hours until she was frantic, just for the spectacle she would create when the suitor booted her from the show. But it is somehow less unsettling to be cynical about physical violence than it is, in UnREAL, to be cynical about the psychological violence that Rachel and her co-workers inflict both on others and themselves. Possibly that’s because it’s more likely that we’ll be in Rachel’s spot—stuck in a terrible job she hates—than we will ever be in a serial killer’s.

We live in an age of a lot of Rachels. Educated in Proust, Plath, and de Beauvoir, they arrived at professional jobs throughout the aughts with high expectations and suddenly found themselves doing meaningless, morally compromised work. You could say, perhaps, that the people who produce reality television chose that life for themselves. But it does seem like those members of the last few generations who wanted aspirational white-collar jobs—in media, in entertainment—found themselves coming up in a social context where, in an age of ostensible plenty, everything suddenly meant less.

Some critics, and Sarah-Gertrude Shapiro, the show’s creator, have tried to suggest that UnREAL is all about female liberation. Here, they say, are women competing just as aggressively as men for the rewards of the corporate world. Even the network seems to think that way. In a recent profile of UnREAL’s creator, Sarah-Gertrude Shapiro, D.T. Max records Lifetime executives giving Shapiro notes like: “I’d caution you against any pitch where Rachel doesn’t give a fuck about Everlasting.” If Rachel isn’t invested in the show and its success, if she admits to herself for a moment that the show is silly and isn’t breaking ground on anything, this line of reasoning has it, the stakes are suddenly and drastically lowered.

It’s a very limited view of just about everything: the show, gender relations, the matter of corporate power. Rachel and Quinn are not really budding Sheryl Sandbergs in the gladiator arena; neither has much idea of their work as fulfilling, only as a path to power. In fact, though the rhetoric of Lean In purported to be about ambition, the metaphor suggests that women go at the matter gently, that they lean rather than push. I don’t think someone like Quinn has ever leaned in her life; it would be a waste of time. She is a true believer in what she’s doing, a person who has sold out enough not to care about “meaning” in the larger sense.

But in spite of the network push, Rachel isn’t. She functions as an avatar of our current work culture: burnt out, frustrated, bored, hostile, apathetic, helpless. Appleby’s been playing her as a kind of sleepwalker, a dutiful soldier whose eyes are still in mutiny. This season threatens to extinguish the last spark in them. That would be what would happen in the real world, anyway.