I've had a fair heap of free time this year, which means that, among other things, I watched the entirety of Breaking Bad a few months ago. I was underwhelmed. I'd heard that it was ultimately an indictment of the American healthcare system, but the show very quickly and immediately goes out of its way to give its protagonist other options (so he's not just forced into a life of crime to save his family) and frequently highlights that the real problem is that he's motivated entirely by pride and (intellectual white male) entitlement. The show wasn't strictly badly written, but I never once had sympathy for Walter White, and I mostly watched to find out who would survive the shrapnel of his inevitable downfall. It was a show about angry men doing violent things and daring anyone else to insult their power, grr, manly grr man guns I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS.
Breaking Bad was absurdly popular, in the same style as The Sopranos, in no small part because it was a power fantasy for men who never got to be terrifying manly villain-heroes in their own lives and feel like they somehow got short shrift. Neal Stephenson spoke one of our world's great truths when he wrote:
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.Breaking Bad struck me as a show for people who were well past 25 and still had those fantasies, especially if they were science nerds. Personally, I meet enough terrible people in my day-to-day existence and don't generally feel the need to hang around more of them. Grim gritty stories about anti-heroes and murderer-protagonists really don't compel me. And I have even less patience for 'he's a good guy, but he's flawed, so he's racist and misogynist and homophobic'--in these cases I really want people to reconsidered what their criteria for 'good guy' should be.
All of this brings me to a new show that my Science Mom introduced me to while visiting this week, called UnREAL, which you'll forgive me for just calling Unreal hereafter. It's a story about people making a 'reality' television show in the style of The Bachelor, called 'Everlasting', with one dude and a dwindling phalanx of women trying to win his heart. In order to ensure high viewership, of course, the producers are in charge of making something as close to an exploitation film as possible--manipulating and provoking the women into getting intoxicated, getting naked, getting into fights, and screaming heartfelt pleas and threats in front of the cameras.
Basically everyone is terrible. Quinn, the executive producer, is really obviously terrible: on the first night of filming, the first contestant revealed on camera is a gorgeous black woman who approaches the dude while performing a violin solo, and Quinn's response behind the scenes is to demand who allowed a black woman to be first, insisting that 'the first one is always wife material--don't look at me like that; it's not my fault America is racist'. Our Hero Rachel, a returning producer, is first introduced looking exhausted and wearing a grey "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, and seems like the most likely person to have a conscience, except that she also has a downright satanic gift for whispering exactly the right wrong words into someone's ear, and she does so again and again to keep her job.
Both of Unreal and Breaking Bad are shows about terrible people doing terrible things, but I found Breaking Bad pretentious and crude while I've found Unreal fascinating and legitimately entertaining. Why the stark difference?
There are some obvious objective differences--the 'terrible things' on Breaking Bad tended to be 'selling drugs to recovering addicts' or 'literally murdering people', while the terrible things on Unreal are more personal and emotional betrayals. One of these things is easier to get over than the other. But the most important difference is that where Breaking Bad used its premise as a justification for us to just watch crimes happen, Unreal is dogged in continually dissecting and revealing as much as it can about the details of the vices at play.
Rachel's producer friend Jay (a gay black man) pulls aside the two black contestants early on to "be real" with them, stating that no black woman in the history of the show has ever gotten past the 'final four' and that there are certain archetypes they need to play into (the aggressive, loud, independent-but-jealous type) if they want to be popular enough to stay that long. One of the women declares that all she cares about is getting some fame to boost the business she plans to start after the show, while the other calls him an Uncle Tom and refuses to pander to racist white audiences. Far from being a throwaway 'racism exists' scene, their choices continue to be reflected in subsequent events, with an ultimate conclusion that no, you can't win at racism. In another scene, Our Hero Rachel tries to incite a good shouting match during a ballroom dance lesson, only to have her intended puppet back off at the last minute and quietly declare "I just realised I was about to slut-shame a woman on national television, and I'm not about that." (I said before that everyone is terrible, but of course part of the point of the show is that the contestants mostly are not, and that is why they have to be manipulated into doing terrible things to make for 'better' TV.)
I'm only four episodes in to what will be a ten-episode season, so I have no idea if the show will remain good or crash and burn or what. There are forms of representation it could improve on (our one confirmed gay character is a guy with no hint of partner, and the cast is as implied mostly white). There's a distinct lack of supportive female friendships, but a distinct lack of friendships in general--most people are either rivals or allies of convenience, and no one is supposed to have anything as vulnerable as feelings. But there are so many women. It's a show filled with women, varied women, women with amazing skills and terrible flaws and complicated motivations. (Needless to say it passes Bechdel several times per episode.)
The connection that I want to make here is ultimately that one of these shows is For Men and the other one is For Women (Breaking Bad was on AMC; Unreal is on Lifetime) and that means that when they created stories about terrible people, one was a story about a lone dude who decided he didn't have to play by the rules anymore, and the other is a story about a host of women who have been varyingly shaped to operate on the wrong sets of rules, and to one degree or another know that the system they live in is wrong but question the power they have to change it...
Well, now we're talking about something relateable.
(If you want to check Unreal out and you don't have Lifetime, I recommend you grab your pirate hat. Putlocker has been serving me well for the first episodes.)