“That felt pretty real to me.”
“That’s the thing with you, Adam; it feels pretty real with everyone.”
—Adam and Rachel in UnREAL
By now, the formulas that lurk behind “reality television” are well known: the obvious ADR, the carefully crafted conflicts, the markedly high correlation of competitive-reality contestants, and the determination to not acquire friends. But if the formula was totally predictable, reality TV wouldn’t have the ongoing audience reach that it has. What keeps us watching is the potential: Past all the polish, the editing, and the understood conventions of the genre, there’s still a sense that something genuine—something spontaneous, unpredictable, true—has to be lurking underneath. We just have to watch hard enough to find it.
Reality television is designed to mirror the tidy narratives we map over the mess of actual reality, marking arcs in our own lives and enacting real-time parallels when our own identities (as crafted as anything on television) fall into a reality archetype. Liz Lemon unconsciously straddled this line on 30 Rock, first when she got a little too close to MILF Island, and later when Queen Of Jordan filmed in her studio. In these episodes, Liz realizes that while the smash cuts from confessional to real-time will make a hypocrite out of anybody, even selective editing can’t hide a glimmer of who someone really is. There’s something enthralling about the idea that viewers can somehow see past the editing of a reality series and discover the truth about the people involved. Similar faux-unscripted TV can be found in The Hotwives Of Orlando (and its forthcoming, Las Vegas follow-up), a semi-fond parody of the Real Housewives franchise that mocks both the vapidity of reality-TV participants and the level of contrivance involved in generating constant conflict.
This search for truth is a particularly tempting lens for non-competitive shows, which remove the pressure on audiences to determine worthiness every week. It’s easy to look for the “real” Kim Kardashian over the progression of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, since her only real competition comes from her family, and events are designed to present a love-to-hate soap opera of noblesse oblige. Those who can see past the contrived banality of the premise to the business empire that trades in recognizance are landing closer to the reality behind the “reality.” Those who are still asking why someone would bother to build such an empire in the first place are actually hoping for the moment that will accidentally reveal the truth—moments of honesty that not even producers can fully obfuscate.
This same disconnect makes shows like Caitlyn Jenner’s new Lifetime show I Am Cait, which trades on perceived authenticity, something of a tough sell. Tackling transgender identity on television is still complicated, not least because of prejudices against transgender people as somehow deceptive—a perception hard to tackle sensitively on reality TV, a genre ruled by either conflict or voyeurism. I Am Cait’s biggest triumph is that it manages not to rely overmuch on either; the result is something both well meaning and carefully controlled, a Fabergé egg of public image. Those expecting vapidity will be stymied by the show’s sincere mission statement; those expecting any raw-edge authenticity will be disappointed by its careful polish. Still, audiences were more than happy to look for a glimpse of the real: Nearly 3 million viewers tuned in for the premiere—the third highest number for E! this year. (Just ahead of its ratings: an About Bruce special about Caitlyn pre-transition, which had also offered an opportunity for viewers to look for honest moments amid the packaging—signs of the impending divorce with wife Kris, any family awkwardness, and more poignantly, perhaps, some signs that Caitlyn would be happy.)
It’s a fascinating show to watch in the wake of UnREAL, Lifetime’s scripted drama about the behind-the-scenes of the distinctly Bachelor-esque dating show Everlasting. It’s a ruthless takedown of the ways reality TV is manipulated, packaged, and managed behind the scenes, but its cleverness lies in the ways it uses its central characters for more than “I knew it” gotchas; they’re all examinations of the idea of authentic identity. And ingeniously, UnREAL illustrates this using the familiar cadence of a reality show. Freelance producer and master manipulator Rachel (Shiri Appleby), vicious and canny showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer), and this season’s adrift suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) are mainstays, but women in the ensemble of contestants come to the fore at the same pace as a reality show would single them out: either for a twist that makes them a player, or a looser edit that’s doomed to send them home.
This structure manages to be both a knowing wink and a subtle indictment of the hunger for reality TV, particularly as the stakes become more personal behind the scenes—and as the contestants become real people even to Rachel. Some of the show’s finest moments spring from this untenable tension. Certainly Rachel, a glorious garbage fire of a person on most days, feels visibly closer to her ideal self when coaxing contestant Faith (Breeda Wool) into accepting that she’s a lesbian. Rachel and Adam even manage to keep Faith’s big reveal off the show, which is the closest to heroics either one of them has come all season. But UnREAL is at its core a deeply unsentimental show, and treats most of its characters with the inevitability of a Russian novel: It’s impossible to be purely authentic in front of an audience, and it’s equally impossible to maintain an illusion for long without beginning to fall for it yourself.
As those walls collapse, the penultimate episode of UnREAL’s first season is a series of failed negotiations. Adam negotiates with Rachel to run away with him; Anna, Grace, and Faith all negotiate to be the last woman standing; Quinn negotiates to get her own production company and to hire Rachel against Rachel’s better instincts; and Rachel negotiates with herself to get her life together and get out of the business. All of them fail for the same reason: Whatever illusions the show has presented in front of or behind the camera, everyone is beginning to believe the setup. That means delivering accidental authenticity: brutally candid interviews, real feelings complicating the Everlasting narrative, and admissions that real honesty is, at the last, impossible.
It’s a nesting-doll effect: a scripted narrative about a superficial narrative, which becomes partially scripted when the superficial accidentally becomes the genuine article. And reflecting the speed at which that perception shifts, the show-within-a-show operates on a deeply false premise—that Everlasting is airing in real time, with just days between filming and broadcast—designed to create a pressure cooker that ensures the truth will out. For a show that’s so deeply aware of the vicious manipulations and machinations behind the scenes, that scheduling gaffe feels far too deliberate to be a handwave for the sake of pacing. It’s an ongoing reminder that reality TV audiences want to believe, deep down, that among the setups they’re being handed, there’s something unstudied.
I Am Cait, perhaps due to Caitlyn’s sense of responsibility to the transgender community as much as the usual Kardashian safeguards, allows very little opportunity for any such slips. Nothing about I Am Cait is truly spontaneous—everything from the first episode’s central conflict about Caitlyn meeting her family to her jokes about her new wardrobe are carefully scripted. (As Caitlyn casually namedrops a Tom Ford dress, Kim jokes in “disbelief” that Kris has the same one by setting up a staged moment within a staged moment: “So it will be like a ‘Who Wore It Better?’”) But even with a season arc as low-key as this promises to be, the show tries to inject a sense of the unstudied: Caitlyn shares a believably awkward conversation with her mother, who’s still adapting to new pronouns, and visits the family of a transgender teen who committed suicide to attend a memorial service. (Whether that particular service was already planned or staged for the show is the sort of thing UnREAL makes you cynical about in a hurry. Happily, Caitlyn’s goals are as noble as reality TV usually gets, and staged or not, the feelings behind the memorial read as genuine enough to be true: the ultimate goal of any good reality show.)
Bachelor host Chris Harrison has recently slammed UnREAL, telling Variety, “It’s complete fiction,” and that the show “wasn’t a sign of respect” to its inspiration. Given that UnREAL is co-produced by former Bachelor producer Sarah Shapiro, these claims are extremely interesting. But whether or not Harrison is accurate, his comments definitely evoke a certain fragility to reality television that requires “respect” from the rest of the industry to keep the illusion alive, some uncanny valley in which everyone is equally embedded. It’s quiet confirmation that the same understanding that exists between reality shows and their audiences also exists between the process of creating reality TV and the finished product. It’s also the sort of thing that could only come from an unstudied outburst: accidental authenticity as fleeting as it is fascinating. I Am Cait acknowledges this terrain with its carefully casual artifice, while refusing to offer any rough edges on which the truth could catch; with the narrative remove of fiction and armed with insider ammunition, UnREAL is suggestive entropy that might get even closer to the truth.