Screen Test

Reality behind TV show

UnREAL exposes manipulations behind dating show while Younger has an older woman re-entering the workplace

Shiri Appleby (far left) and Constance Zimmer play producers of a dating show in UnREAL.PHOTO: A+E NETWORKS

A funny thing happens when you watch UnREAL, a drama set behind the scenes at a dating show: You start questioning everything you see on reality television - and not just the programmes about dating either.

The scales start falling from your eyes once you see the show's protagonists Rachel (Girls' Shiri Appleby) and her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer from Entourage) work their magic as producers of a fictional programme called Everlasting. It is modelled after the ongoing The Bachelor, a hugely popular American dating show, where UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro once worked.

Rachel and Quinn handpick contestants to fulfil certain stereotypical female roles on the show, a feminist nightmare that requires them to humiliate themselves while competing for the affections of a man dubbed "the suitor".

What Everlasting fans do not get to see is the girls being manipulated into doing whatever it takes to boost viewership. The producers mislead them, semi-starve them, get them drunk and goad them into on-camera fights and other embarrassing behaviour - often preying on their insecurities with the aid of intimate psychological profiles drawn up by therapists on the show's payroll. The footage is then creatively edited to within an inch of its life and is sometimes presented out of context.

The series has been rather underrated, maybe because it does not air on a prestige channel in the United States or because the setting - an inane dating show - seems unimportant.

Shiri Appleby (far left) and Constance Zimmer play producers of a dating show in UnREAL. PHOTO: A+E NETWORKS

But by the end of its first season last year, UnREAL had exposed the contrived nature of "unscripted" reality TV and the toolkit it uses to manipulate both contestants and viewers, many of whom are women. It also made a more subtle, difficult point about how female producers such as Rachel and Quinn help to perpetuate this lie even as they themselves face discrimination in the workplace.


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Season 2 ups the ante by examining the unspoken racial bias on dating programmes such as The Bachelor, where ethnic-minority contestants rarely progress to the later rounds. This is why The Bachelor was once sued by two black contestants who claimed they had been barred from "lead roles" - an effort praised by the judge, but ultimately dismissed on freedom-of-expression grounds.

This season of Everlasting does something The Bachelor has never done - cast its first African- American suitor. Quinn and Rachel hail this as historic, but what they really want is to boost ratings by playing on ethnic stereotypes.

Thus a Muslim contestant is encouraged to wear a headscarf, even though she has never donned one before, and an educated Black Lives Matter activist is prodded to quarrel with a woman wearing a Confederate-flag bikini. Meanwhile, the producers have already decided that they want one of the white girls to win.

UnREAL will get you wondering how often this sort of thing really goes on and offers a juicily complex workplace drama that can be enjoyed even if you cannot be bothered with these larger themes.

Younger, a sitcom about a 40-year-old woman masquerading as a 26-year-old, swings for a few big ideas of its own.

Liza (Bunheads' Sutton Foster) is a housewife looking to re-enter the workplace after a failed marriage. She tries to get back to the publishing career she gave up to raise her daughter, but is now considered too old for an entry-level position while also lacking the resume for a more senior one.

The solution: Pretend to be 26 and get a job as a publishing intern. This introduces her to the brave new world of millennials and their obsessions, as well as a new circle of young friends - including a 20something boyfriend who assumes she is his age.

It is the classic double-identity gag crossed with the "what if I were young again" fantasy that is usually the province of body-swap movies such as Tom Hanks' Big (1988). Liza's likeability means the audience will cheer for her to get away with it even as they laugh at her predicament.

All this is entertaining enough, but what set Younger apart in early episodes was its nod to the challenges facing women deemed to have passed their sell-by date.

If only it pushed this thread further. Instead, the show devolves into a boilerplate romantic comedy, with Liza mostly just falling out with her loved ones (and then quickly making up), swooning over her boss and breezing through a variety of professional obstacles.

And her charade will probably carry on for as long as the ratings allow - but that will get old fast, especially if the rest of the show stays this predictable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Reality behind TV show'. Print Edition | Subscribe