This summer, Lifetime finally gave us those dark and complicated women its movies have always tried to master with its first original scripted series, UnREAL. An unflinching look at how Hollywood churns out fairy-tale dating shows with no regard for the people involved, the series was immediately impressive. UnREAL has managed to skillfully balance its soapy melodrama with its more startling darker turns, especially in relation to its incredibly complex women characters.
Deliciously ruthless executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and conflicted segment producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) use people’s weaknesses against them, and have therefore been hailed as “female antiheroes.” This was no accident, according to series co-creator and former Bachelor producer Sarah Getrude Shapiro, who’s said that UnREAL‘s writers’ room often cites Breaking Bad as an influence.
While Rachel is usually more reluctant than Quinn to use her powers, the series hinges on one crucial point: Rachel is great at her shitty job. The pilot largely consists of a series of people talking about how Rachel is so brilliant that even getting sent off in disgrace at the end of the last season isn’t enough to keep Quinn from wanting her back on the set. It seems impossible that whatever Rachel does will live up to those Goliath standards Quinn sets — and then she does. Rachel sizes up the contestants, processes their often dramatic, traumatic stories, and finds ways to exploit the hell out of them. She changes her approach with every girl, custom fitting her manipulation to get what she wants with a reassuring smile. Whether or not she feels good about what she does, Rachel is the best.
Television is filthy with geniuses. Centering a show on a character who is supposedly the best in their field is a popular approach: “She’s brilliant.” “He’s the best.” “No one can do [insert career and/or skill] like she can.” But saying a character is unparalleled is a huge claim. The script had better it back up, or the show risks losing credibility with the audience. Representing genius is the most classic and the highest difficulty “show, don’t tell” exercise out there. Take Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to bring gravity to a late-night sketch show kicked off with the return of a brilliant talent — just like UnREAL. The problem was that after building up this writer as the most innovative beacon of sharp truth, their sketches were basic at best. Not being able to deliver on the central conceit of this so-called brilliant guy was a major blow against the show; Studio 60 never gained enough traction to go beyond a single season.
Previously, Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) paid for her brownstone apartment with a column that sounded like a woman writing fanfic about her own life. Contrast that failure against a success like Mad Men, which said from the beginning that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was a genius salesman and delivered. If the ad pitches Matthew Weiner and his staff wrote for Don weren’t so strong, a crucial aspect of the show never would have worked. That failure would have thrown the rest of the series into question. Granted, fictional geniuses aren’t always writers like Don and Studio 60‘s sad sack (Matthew Perry). But a series doesn’t quite have to prove the worth of scientists, mathematicians, and doctors like it does creative types, who are producing tangible evidence to judge. It’s just easier to tell when a writer/producer/other creative is a hack.
One of the most compelling things about UnREAL is that it cut to the chase and made its central genius a savant in the art of manipulation. Rachel’s entire job is coercing people into doing what she wants without them even realizing it, and as the series continues, there’s no doubt that she is, in fact the best. Or, as Appleby said at a recent Paley Panel, “[Rachel] happens to be really good at something that kills her on the inside.” (This is also just about as good a definition of “antihero” as we’re going to get.)
Rachel’s ability to manipulate is par for the TV-genius course. Looking at a list of Characters TV Tells Us Are The Best, we see that they are all manipulators in one way or another. Don Draper targets emotions; Walter White manipulates The System. Self-professed con artists like Orphan Black‘s Sarah Manning manipulate their surroundings. Even Jeff Winger uses his rhetoric power on Community to make people bend to his will. So if you’re creating a show and you’d like your main character to be a genius, do yourself a favor and make their superpower manipulation.