Lifetime’s ‘UnReal’ Exposes Dark Underbelly of Media’s Ratings Obsession

Lifetime’s second season of UnReal premiered this week and it is an all-too-real, sad commentary on our culture. The scripted drama shows a behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat making of a The Bachelor-type reality dating show called Everlasting where producers go to extremes to manipulate cast members for ratings.

The show’s moral depravity and cynicism are established from the opening seconds of the episode “War” when the lead female producers get matching tattoos that say, “Money, Dick, Power,” then go out to a launch party fueled by cocaine and sex.

This season, for the first time, the eligible bachelor on the show (called a suitor) is black. Show runner Rachel (Shiri Appleby) gets off on the fact that she came up with the idea. “It was me! The first black suitor, it was me. We’re going to be making history!” she shouts while banging his manager.

Executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) loves the idea as it will produce huge ratings. “I promise you 20 million viewers,” she tells a network executive. “The minute he lays black hands on a white ass Twitter will melt down.”

Inflaming racial tensions is the name of the game if you want to win ratings, apparently, and the women set to work on scripting drama for their “unscripted” reality show. As Rachel says of their role, “We don't solve problems. We create them and then we point cameras at them.” They ruthlessly chew people up and spit them out because they know the audience will eat it up.

Rachel has already handpicked the show’s villain, a girl named Beth Ann from Mississippi who is Instagram famous for posting photos of herself in a Confederate flag bikini. “Wait till she finds out she's here to bag a black man!” Quinn squeals. She’s dubbed “our white supremacist.”

Next up they need an angry black woman. In trying to convince “blacktivist” Ruby to do the show so they can set up a juicy confrontation with Beth Ann, Rachel appeals to her ideals, promising her a platform for her views. The way she manipulates the girl into dropping out of her last semester of college for the show is a sight to behold. Rachel says, in explaining her sleazy actions to a junior producer, “If we have to sacrifice a few people along the way for the greater good, so be it.” “Yeah, you're right,” he responds drily. “We're like Aztecs. Or Hitler.”

Rachel: Ruby Carter, right? Ruby? 
Ruby: Hi. 
Rachel: Hi, I'm Rachel Goldberg. I am the show runner on "Everlasting." 
Ruby: What? Look, I already told the little skinny brother no, okay? You need to leave. 
Rachel: I'm sorry, but he just didn't have all the information. 
Ruby: What information is gonna make me drop out of college to go be on a racist, misogynist reality show I don't even watch? 
Rachel: 16 million viewers a week for your political platform when your Twitter fame's about to expire like bad milk. 
Ruby: Black girls only last a couple weeks on those shows, and they don't get any airtime. 
Rachel: I thought you said you didn't watch. 
Ruby: Whatever.
Rachel: Okay. I'm sorry, does it not even matter to you that we're making history this season? The suitor's black. 
Ruby: I'm sorry, what?
Rachel: It's a huge secret. The guy's also famous, and he asked to meet you. Thinks you're an American hero. And he's into you. He thinks –
Ruby: Wait. Let me get this straight. You think I got myself into Berkeley, worked this hard for what I believe in to, what, get a man? 
Rachel: I didn't go to Vassar to get a man. 
Ruby: Yeah, I'm sure.
Rachel: Did you hear me? You know what? You know, you are -- You're right. You should stay here. You should just let your four underpaid professors read your senior thesis on -- what is it? Post-colonial Africa? I get it. Why would you want to use stupid old TV to spread your message. I mean, the teen birth rate, it went down 5.6% because of "Teen Mom" shows on mtv. And "The Real World" -- you remember that show? That show started the gay rights movement. But, yeah, TV's super useless as a medium for change.

Of course, television writers love to over-inflate their importance, but in this case what Rachel says rings true - TV is a useful medium for change, and nobody’s better at manipulating it than the left. As the late Andrew Breitbart always said, "Politics is downstream from culture." TV is always influential, often to society's detriment, usually to leftists' benefit.

Watching all this, you can’t help but think of the current state of the news media and how their desperate quest for ratings helped give life to the Black Lives Matter movement. Sensational headlines screaming, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” got a lot of attention while the truth got buried. Same thing with Donald Trump. The other Republican candidates were drowned out by coverage of the latest Trump controversy. Trump is a master manipulator who has the media salivating over the ratings he provides. Like Quinn and Rachel, the media think nothing of fanning the flames of racial tension to boost ratings.

UnReal is raunchy and depraved, but even with the cynical absurdity pushed to the extreme it still manages to hit on some hard truths about our culture’s media obsession and the media’s own ratings obsession.

Alexa Moutevelis Coombs
Alexa is MRC Culture's On TV blog editor. She has previously worked for Students for Life for America and Citizens United Productions.