Right now, American television drama is doing two things well that its cinema is barely touching.
Most starkly, TV is where the chewy roles for women are. The characters played by Keri Russell in The Americans or Eva Green in Penny Dreadful have far more nuance than, say, Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine, and far more purchase on the culture than, say, Julianne Moore’s in Still Alice. (Blanchett and Moore won the 2014 and 2015 Academy Awards for Best Actress respectively.)
Television is also telling stories about the workplace: a sphere largely ignored by the studios, too intent on franchise world-building to care about the ordinary. Although “ordinary” is relative. Shows like HBO’s Ballers (inside the NFL) or Fox’s Empire (inside hip-hop) take us behind the velvet rope, trafficking in the same voyeurism that sells tabloids while theoretically critiquing it. Entourage was just the beginning.
Reality TV, of course, dramatised the allure of fame before its tonier fictional counterparts came along. The brutally funny UnREAL, created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon, marries the two. It’s a Lifetime show that’s a world away from that channel’s customary, much-mocked Kleenex-bait.
Shapiro once worked as a producer on The Bachelor, and UnREAL chronicles a season in the life of a thinly veiled equivalent called Everlasting. The production is presided over by executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her protégé, Rachel (Shiri Appleby), an expert at manipulating female contestants into saying and doing things that will be great for ratings, though perhaps not great for their mental health. The girls are jockeying to win the hand of a smugly handsome English aristocrat, Adam (Freddie Stroma), who only agreed to be the show’s “suitor” to rehabilitate his party-boy image. The logic seems counterintuitive to me, too.
The character of Rachel has been touted as an anti-heroine, the ponytailed heir to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. The so-called Second Golden Age relentlessly served up conflicted macho men, corrupt but human, but Rachel is the embodiment of a new era, full of women whose ambiguity feels less a narrative springboard than a symptom of self-preservation. She wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”, and UnREAL is refreshingly clear-eyed about the contradictions that self-identification can encompass. We all keep two sets of books, but Rachel’s proficiency at it imprisons her in a profession she purports to despise. She wields the power of life or death, quite literally, and it sickens her – and thrills her, too.
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