What’s the line between reality and fiction on TV? Vv Magazine’s Danielle Jobb chats with a former reality TV star to get a behind-the-scenes look at what’s really going on.
“Welcome back to reality, Rachel.”
By reality, Quinn, a reality television producer, means your job behind the scenes on a TV show called Everlasting, which looks a lot like The Bachelor. Rachel, a sharp and somewhat frumpy producer who once majored in Women’s Studies, is played by Shiri Appleby. Her less-than graceful resignation from the show last season was fuelled by her personal ethics. Her return to the show in episode one is shrouded in mystery.
This is the basis for UnReal, the new Lifetime dramedy that sets out to expose how the only real thing about reality television is what takes place behind the scenes, not in front of the camera.
The show was created by a feminist power-team. Marti Noxon, responsible for the ass-kicking heroines on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who was inspired by the her experiences while working as a field producer behind the scenes on The Bachelor. A field producer’s job is to stir up conflict between the subjects. UnReal shows Rachel sneaking around getting the contestants to cry, reveal secrets and force chemistry with the bachelor.
“They are the biggest sociopaths I have ever met. They try to be your friends, you have to be smart enough to see through it,” an anonymous star of a reality show produced by a major Canadian television network tells me about what it was like to have a production team film your life. The show she starred on was similar to The Hills in style.
“They said they were looking for so-called ‘real’ single women in their thirties, living in a post-Carrie Bradshaw landscape. Then they force you to be an eighties weirdo that needs a man,” she says. The producers would probe the stars for juicier content. If nothing was happening organically, they’d ask questions about controversial things in the stars’ lives. “Conflict and romance make them happy. Making out and punching are what they’re going for. Cheating and blood in any of those situations: amazing. Reality stars are the gladiators of modern times, they want to see blood or some other kind of bodily fluid. Nobody wants to see you develop as a human being,” our anonymous star explains.
“The notion is that it’s supposed to be life, but when it’s boring, you feel the pressure from the producers to pack your calendar. Then you have to find out if it’s doable to shoot the events, so reality becomes structured by feasibility,” she continues.
Reality television has always cast stereotypes (The Bitch, The MILF, The Bro). The female lead as a basic, palatable character is ubiquitous in the media and hugely criticized by feminist theorists. UnReal seeks to give the contestants’ strong characters with backstories and complex feelings. The show is all about depicting real people with real problems. Welcome back to reality, a place where women are three-dimensional and we understand that reality television is cripplingly shallow.
UnReal is not the first show to flip reality TV upside down to shake up what’s hidden inside. In the final moments of The Hills series finale, the camera pans out to reveal a full crew operating on a soundstage, suggesting that the joke has been on us since LC cried that perfect mascara streak tear. Are these meta moments going to help reverse the damage these shows have done? They’re certainly a step in the right direction.
When I asked our anonymous star if she felt comfortable with the end result, she said, “I managed to stick to my guns and was happy with the representation of myself, but it was because I had my wits about me.” When it comes to reality television, no matter which side of the screen you’re on, it’s important to be aware of what you think versus what they want you to think.
Will you be watching UnReal? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.