AnTENNA, UnREAL: Channel Branding and Racial Politics

August 21, 2015
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[The following is the third in a series of conversations between Antenna contributors regarding the Lifetime drama series UnREAL, which recently completed its first season. See part 1 here, and part 2 here.]

UnREAL, Unwatched


Myles McNUTT, Old Dominion University: It seems important to acknowledge in any conversation about an original scripted cable drama in the contemporary moment that, if it’s not The Walking Dead, chances are very few people are watching it. In the case of UnREAL, this is particularly true: the ratings have not been good, despite Lifetime going out of their way to give the first four episodes available to binge for free after the premiere.

That UnREAL lives to see a second season is, itself, not a huge surprise: it’s one of the first Lifetime dramas produced in-house, the critical acclaim gives them a foothold to brand rearticulation, and the show’s strengths give them a chance to woo the Hollywood Foreign Press Association into some valuable Golden Globes attention. A second season is the kind of calculated risk that the primary profit participant in a TV drama tends to take: if the show streams well, and if critical acclaim helps international sales, and if live viewership manages to tick upward, there’s a chance this turns into a hit.

UnREAL says a lot about the reality TV industry as a text, but it also says a lot about cable branding, discourses of quality, and metrics of success as a product of the television industry more broadly. How far is Lifetime willing to hold onto a show like UnREAL for theoretical value to its brand if no one is watching? It’s easy to look at the ways that UnREAL helps Lifetime’s cause, expanding its brand to audiences that may have previously dismissed it. But at what point do they stop touting the “viewership across platforms” statistic—still mostly meaningless to advertisers—and give up if they fail to see tangible improvement?

Phillip Maciak, Louisiana State University: If I say Lena Dunham’s name one more time she’ll appear, right? I’m not invested in any qualitative comparisons between Girls and UnREAL, but it’s hard not to notice that the numbers UnREAL is sporting right now that are causing us so much concern are very similar to the numbers Girls has been pulling for four seasons. There are differences in streaming platforms, OnDemand numbers, etc, but it seems like we’ve got yet another water-cooler favorite of the critterati taking up proportionally more space in arts and culture verticals than its viewership would seem to warrant. As you mentioned before, though, Myles, this show is radically off-brand for Lifetime. Or, at least it’s pushing hard at the edges of the brand. Is it possible, do we think, that UnREAL‘s financial success might mean less than its perceived critical success for the network? In other words, is it more important for UnREAL to lure viewers or for UnREAL‘s critical success to lure writers to produce a different kind of content for Lifetime?

Myles: After I wrote my response, FX’s John Landgraf suggested they follow a “2 out of 3” model for renewing their shows: FX, “Experts,” and viewers (or ratings, if we prefer) all get a vote, and if it gets 2 out of 3, it’s getting renewed. It’s far from an easy calculus, but it gives you an example of how a basic cable channel with experience in programming sees that uneasy mix of needing to compete on a branding level with premium channels but also have to be more aware of the number of people watching (versus simply the type of people watching, which serves HBO well in the case of Girls).

The issue with drawing a comparison between Girls and UnREAL, though, is that I’m pretty sure we—as in academics/critics/journalists—are the only people talking about UnREAL. This isn’t an actual watercooler show: it’s a watercooler show in the corners of the internet we frequent, and a complete non-entity everywhere else even despite Lifetime’s pretty significant efforts to get it out there. While it certainly has a bit more buzz than something like Terriers—which is an historical example of FX overriding their “2 of 3” model—it still strikes me as something that has had very minimal “cultural impact” once we move beyond these circles.

Jason Mittell, Middlebury College: One series that UnREAL reminds me of a lot in a number of ways is The Joe Schmo Show, which is one of my favorite unheralded television programs of the century. Joe Schmo also provides a critical take on reality TV, albeit through the “reality hoax” mode rather than scripted drama, and the amazing second season offered a similarly biting critique of The Bachelor (seriously, if you haven’t watched Joe Schmo Show 2, it’s dirt cheap on Amazon and I promise you won’t regret it!). Joe Schmo aired on Spike TV, Lifetime’s binary counterpart branded as “The First Network for Men” (apparently, besides all the other ones…). Both programs simultaneously fit with and resist their home channel’s brand identity—although Joe Schmo did often include events with bikini models or porn stars to pander to the assumed Spike audience, it was far more critical than celebratory of the bro lifestyle. Likewise, UnREAL seems to be addressing a much different type of viewer (or at least, mode of viewing) than Dance Moms or Bring It! This makes me wonder if UnREAL becoming a hit (if it builds a following once the first season is available on streaming and attracts attention through awards and year-end accolades) might actually be a danger to Lifetime’s brand—after all, the temptation to go upscale and legit might be too tempting for parent company A&E, whose various networks have all struggled to find their equivalent of The Shield or Mad Men that might give them a foothold into the quality brand.

Kristen Warner, University of Alabama: I wonder if a better parallel between series trying to push the edges of their current brand is UnReal and USA’s Mr. Robot? Both shows push their respective networks into darker content while simultaneously targeting different demographics than they’ve been able to capture previously. Is Mr. Robot, despite its premiere at a film festival, its tie to Anonymous Content and ultimately to David Fincher, and its (annoyingly heavy) borrowing of style from high brow auteurs, similarly unwatched?

Myles: It’s drawing close to twice as many viewers as UnREAL, but compared to what USA used to draw in the era of Monk, no one is watching Mr. Robot.

Kristen: Interesting. So do its similarities keep it as a potential comparison?

Myles: I think both offer a case study in how much discursive framing of “success” is becoming a creative exercise in the television industry right now—whether it’s USA picking up Mr. Robot before its premiere or Lifetime releasing all four episodes of UnREAL online, they’re asking us to see a show as successful so as to attain brand value from that. And there’s a point at which the “Emperor’s New Clothes” model of brand development starts to fall apart.

Christine Becker, University of Notre Dame: One of my mom’s must-see shows is Devious Maids, which airs before UnREAL on Lifetime’s schedule. On a recent family vacation, I tried to convince her to watch UnREAL with me, but she showed no interest and seemed to not even know what it was, despite the fact promos for it surely aired during Devious Maids (maybe she’s watching on a DVR and fast-forwarding through the ad breaks—the challenge of marketing a series/channel lineup today). I now regret not digging deeper into her reluctance, especially given that she’s the one who first instilled a love of melodrama and soap opera in me. But this example would seem to affirm that UnREAL is outside of Lifetime’s typical purview. My mom doesn’t like it when her soaps get too “real” or violent (she stopped watching General Hospital because of the mob stuff, as sanitized as it is there compared to, say, The Sopranos). And UnREAL might look too intense to her. She also doesn’t really watch reality TV, so that could be another reason it wouldn’t hook her. Finally, I don’t watch Devious Maids, but I do know that it has “Erica Kane” (perhaps my mom’s favorite character/actress of any medium ever), plus, putting together the title with the cast list, I presume it features Latinas as maids, so it might stay within my mom’s acceptable range of racial representations too. Which leads to another topic I’d like to see discussed:

UnREAL and Race

Christine: And here I gratuitously invite Kristen to chime in, because she has expressed on social media such insightful readings of the show and of reality TV from a racial perspective, and I want to hear more. I’ve found the racial critique UnREAL offers to be among its most revealing aspects, perhaps because the gender critiques are more familiar to me, so the deconstruction of the rigged racial game in reality TV, both on screen and (especially) offscreen, feels even more revelatory.

Kristen: Oh Chris, where to begin? Regarding its take on industry, in many ways UnREAL proves that with mild exception (and the exceptions in the instance of this series fail), the film and television industry really reproduces itself in the image of those who run it: i.e., white men and women. There’s very clearly three generations of white lady producers (and I mostly predicted that all three would be producers prior to the finale so where’s my ribbon) who all are at different phases of the same career. And while these white women face very real and painful oppressions, I am still gobsmacked that no one has noticed how, it is the certainty of whiteness that allows them to push through those constraints (at all kinds of costs) and succeed.


Nevertheless, the exceptions like Shia and Jay don’t. Also at all kinds of costs—and firings. So this little micro model is useful in thinking about the difficulties that folks of color face in breaking into industry work while getting close enough to see the next level—even trying to create opportunities for themselves at the cost of some moral and legal scruples—but still unable to make it because they aren’t in the image of the person in charge. What’s more, thinking more about Shia, in an interview Sarah Gertrude Shapiro talked about how she feels sympathy for Shia because she’s been misunderstood: “she just wants to be loved.” “She’s not as pretty or whatever.” Besides the obvious yet unintentional infantilization of that woman of color that quote implies (who to be honest I was glad to see go as that character was far too on the nose for my liking—her strategies negotiating her precarity didn’t prove to me she realized she was living that precarious life—a pitfall of blindcasting I would argue), Shapiro didn’t seem to realize she played into the very tropes that her show within the show tried so hard to bust up from the very beginning. Simply put there’s no future for Shia. We knew this going in. Just like we know there’s no future for Shamequa or Athena.

Last point: While UnREAL is so astute about explicitly stating what people REALLY say about racialized bodies (the first five minutes of the pilot, the scene between Jay and the two black competitors, the moment where Adam’s grandmother tells him they don’t marry the brown people), there’s still huge blind spots among their own reflexivity at the level of production.

Phil: Yes to all of this. And, just to tie in Kristen’s comments with earlier discussions of labor and competence, it’s interesting (troubling) to me how Shia was presented, from the very first episode, as the kind of inverse of Rachel. So much is made of Rachel’s genius as a producer for this show, but we learn that Rachel’s special by repeatedly seeing how Shia isn’t. Seeing Shia struggle is how we understand the grotesque artistry of what Rachel and Quinn do. Rachel has a natural facility with manipulation; Shia’s attempts are forced and awkward. Rachel operates precisely and responsibly, cutting just enough to hurt but not enough to kill the patient; Shia operates sloppily and irresponsibly, blood spraying everywhere, corpses piling up. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a compliment to say that Shia isn’t quite the virtuosic sociopath that Rachel is, but, within the economy of the show, it means she’s less worthy of everyone’s time. (Literally so, inasmuch as she disappears from the series.) In any case, it’s curious not only that one of the show’s few people of color is marginalized but that we’re supposed to see that marginalization as deserved. Shia isn’t allowed into the structuring female mentorship relationship at the center of this show, and the show is very clear that it’s because Shia’s missing something innate that Quinn and Rachel have.

Jason: One thing I struggle with is how much this portrayal of the perpetuation of white success within the industry is presented as object of critique, the simple reality of how it works, and/or an unquestioned normalization. I want to believe the former is the dominant tone, and that they chose to make the racial critique overt in the production of Everlasting but more subtle in the production of UnREAL. After all, the three producers are explicitly pitted against each other in a contest. The failure of ethnically-unmarked-but-nonwhite Shia leads to her erasure from the cast, just as most of the non-white contestants disappear once suitor Adam has not found anything noteworthy to hold onto; likewise, Jay is sent packing once both shows have no need of the “black bitch.” Madison’s unexpected (to everyone but Kristen!) elevation mirrors the last-minute return of Britney to the cast, both elevated by Chet in reward for their oral services, highlighting that “success” is open to white women willing to leverage their sexuality. UnREAL highlights the role of sex as career advancement (including one of my favorite lines of Chet’s utter sleezeballery—in defending his Madison dalliance to Quinn, his exasperated explanation is “she’s a mouth!”), but leaves the racial dimension unspoken. I noticed the parallels, and took it as a subtle commentary to avoid on-the-nose gesturing, rather than unquestioned normalization, but I grant that when it comes to such matters of calling out white privilege, subtlety is dangerous.


Kristen: It’s very dangerous, Jason. So much so that subtlety to most untrained eyes who never see the precarity of intersectional identity in industry labor called out explicitly—unless it’s by racialized bodies who they can then characterize as being too sensitive or overly cautious—will be able to ignore it or just miss it completely. And, listen, on a show that examines how white women explicitly navigate the labor game through whatever strategies they can maneuver, it’s not a difficult thing to ask that they be explicit about the fact that it’s THEM who keep and maintain power because it’s their “mouths” that are desired. The Latina contestant is probably the closest voice to one who acknowledges how stuck she is between the trope she fulfills and the fact that she knows she has to play that trope in order to get to where she wants to be. That is most certainly a labor issue and it is handled well. But it reveals, similar to the conversation Jay has with Athena and Shamiqua, Shapiro’s comfort discussing race, gender, and talent as labor but not race, gender, gatekeepers, and labor. And that is unfortunate because as Phillip mentioned earlier, if we do not signal for the fact that Shia is a woman of color in an industry where she is always already at the margins, how do we understand her utter failures and Rachel’s inate “know-how” as anything outside of the traditional binaries of racial competencies? This show ain’t subtle about shit so I can’t buy that it’s taking a quiet tack on the race stuff. It’s more likely that its writers just missed it on that front in the service of diversity without considering for the problems that may occur or the reinforcement of the status quo they’ve maintained (which, I mean, it’s true, so…).

Chris: I was going to reply to Jason’s comment with something along the lines that none of the other critiques made by the show are subtle, which makes me question if they’d make the racial labor critique subtle, but Kristen takes care of that just fine with “This show ain’t subtle about shit.”

Jason: Okay, I’ll grant that my reading of the parallels between producers and contestants as a veiled racial critique is overly generous. And “This show ain’t subtle about shit” is as good as a conclusion as we’re going to find!

Thanks to everyone for participating in, and reading, this conversation! Continue on in the comments…


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