UnREAL is a fiction about a fiction about reality; as such, it would have been easy for its writers to focus on the ironies embedded in that format. The stuff of The Bachelor (and The Bachelorette and Married at First Sight and My Fair Brady and Dating Naked and all the other shows in their vein) is, after all, eminently mockable. The “Rose Ceremonies”! The “Fantasy Suites”! The candles! The talking-head interviews with contestants! The cryings-in-the-backseat-of-limos! The drama both intensely human and ridiculously manufactured! “Let’s give them something that they want,” Quinn tells her crew in UnREAL’s pilot episode, going on to list as elements of that “something” ponies and princesses and romance and love, and going on after that to remind everyone that “it’s all a bunch of crap anyways.”
But UnREAL doesn’t just mock the conventions of treacly dating shows. It meets those shows on their own terms, focusing, in particular, on one element they all share: They are, maybe more than anything else, mysteries. Highly stylized and ritualized mysteries, yes, but mysteries nonetheless. Who will the Bachelor(ette) pick at the end of the show? What surprises will transpire when strangers find themselves, suddenly, married to each other? UnREAL takes the uncertainties at the center of the marriage plot—will they? won’t they?—and infuses them into its own production. There are not only ambiguous outcomes, but also ambiguous relationships and ambiguous power dynamics and ambiguous character motivations. You’re never quite sure who’s on whose side, or what the line is between honesty and manipulation. The characters themselves are never quite sure, either.
At the center of it all is Rachel, the woman who first appears in UnREAL wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt, and who professes to be participating in the morally questionable behavior that is apparently required of a good Everlasting producer only under duress. Who, despite the talent she has for that role, insists that she would rather be producing “a show about women who have careers and actually talk about them” and/or “saving AIDS babies.”
What does she really want, though? Is she a hero or an anti-hero? “You know how I always used to say that the show is bad for you, and how it brings out the ugliness in you?” Jeremy, her on-and-off love interest, asks her in the season’s final episode. “I was wrong, Rach,” he says. “It’s you that’s ugly.”
Is she? Is everyone else, too—all these writers and producers and executives and shooters and actors-in-the-guise-of-actual people, all these participants in a charade that, week by week, both celebrates and cheapens romantic love?
The show doesn’t say. It does, instead, what the best literature does: It leaves itself open to interpretation and argument. It asks its audience to think, and analyze, and come to their own conclusions. It makes a point of its own ambiguity.