Burning Down the House: UnREAL, The Handmaid’s Tale and the Limits of “Topical” TV

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Burning Down the House: UnREAL, The Handmaid’s Tale and the Limits of “Topical” TV

Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the most recent seasons of UnREAL and The Handmaid’s Tale.

UnREAL’s surprise fourth (and final) season, unceremoniously shunted from Lifetime to Hulu just months after the conclusion of Season Three, starts to come to a head in the aptly titled “No Limits.” The series’ Bachelor-style reality show, Everlasting, is past the halfway mark of its boffo All Stars edition, and conniving producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, shedding blonde highlights and faux eyelashes as the season unfurls as if she were the picture of Dorian Gray) is eager to bring to fruition her most devious plan of all: To goad Maya (Natasha Wilson), a current and former contestant, to exact revenge on her rapist, a fellow contestant named Roger (Tom Brittney), by weakening the woman’s psychological defenses. Maya’s pelted with eggs, coerced into sharing her story, ambushed by doubters, even forced to share a bed with Roger, clinging to her pillow as he curls up beside her. And through it all, UnREAL’s once-complicated protagonist—reflecting on the series’ sinfully entertaining first season, I called her “the Svengali of the fantasy suite… the Jane Craig of crap”—whistles “Dixie,” mostly unfazed by the havoc she wreaks. Maya’s arc culminates not with her knife attack on Roger, which she carries out to protect another contestant, but with her subsequent humiliation as a Fatal Attraction-esque hysteric, orchestrated by Rachel to “World Series ratings” and (I kid you not) chants of “Lock her up!”

Of course, UnREAL, created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, has always had a thorny relationship with the genre it depicts. Part of Season One’s allure, in fact, is its willingness to blur the border between utilizing and satirizing reality TV’s most alarming conventions, to the point that it’s reminiscent of Ryan Murphy: Both render the audience complicit in the excesses of “entertainment,” rooting for the very fairy tales and catfights we claim to reject. “UnREAL is the camel passing through the eye of the needle,” I wrote then, “mocking its subject while submitting to its power, focusing on two intelligent women who achieve success by extracting a pound of flesh from their peers”:

At its best, the series is a supreme unbalancing act, a deft sociopolitical provocation; to watch it is catch oneself in a kind of feminist wrongthink with each new narrative twist. “That’s girl power!” Rachel exclaims to [Everlasting’s executive producer] Quinn [King, played by Constance Zimmer] at one point, celebrating their decision to keep Mary (Ashley Scott), a single mother and domestic abuse survivor, around for another week. Do you cheer their belief that an older woman can be as sexy as the bright young things in her midst, or deplore their use of her fragile sense of self? Do you smile, or do you cringe?

It’s dispiriting to see the series that handled Mary’s subsequent suicide with such unexpected aplomb—transforming itself, if only for an episode, from biting behind-the-scenes satire into full-throated indictment—so thoroughly botch Maya’s “revenge,” substituting cheap feints at ambivalence for the genuine artifact. In “No Limit,” the tell is the decision to invite the most decent character ever to appear on UnREAL, Breeda Wool’s charming country girl, Faith, to deliver the verdict against Rachel, the sort of pat writing at which the minds behind Everlasting might laugh: “I can’t hold you in my heart if you’re going to make your life’s work destroying women on national television,” Faith says. “What happened to you?” Though it’s clear the series doesn’t care to hear the answer—the finale’s bungling last-minute moral volte-face notwithstanding—the question’s a fair one, and its implications aren’t limited to UnREAL alone. Presaging a spate of TV series keen to capitalize on the headline-grabbing potential of “identity politics” without the nuanced characterization to match, UnREAL stopped seeing Rachel (and Quinn) as truly conflicted, and instead started using both as pawns to score easy points on the subjects of race, gender, and the nature of celebrity. In this, the series’ decline from a lance on the boil of reality TV contrivances to the spoiled rotgut of backstage dramas is its closest approximation of the genre to date: By the end of UnREAL, neither its politics nor its central figures are developing organically: They are—in Everlasting parlance—being produced.

At this highly partisan moment in American social life, the temptation—nay, the pressure—to plumb the nightly news for material is forceful indeed, as is the sense of moral imperative that accompanies many series’ progressive bent. When One Day at a Time’s Lydia Riera (Rita Moreno) and Jane the Virgin’s Alba Villanueva (Ivonne Coll) become U.S. citizens; when Pose and The Assassination of Gianni Versace find reflections of present-day transphobia and homophobia in their queer histories of the 1980s and 1990s; when GLOW considers “the casting couch” and Dear White People the abortion debate, there is, suffusing these programs’ capable craftsmanship, the ardor of conviction, and the result is TV aflame with purpose.

UnREAL’s problem—since mimicked by Homeland’s dreadful, Infowars-style hellraiser, Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), Here and Now’s undue pride in its distinctly middlebrow complexion, and, most disastrously, Roseanne’s self-immolating star—is the opposite: Beginning in its second season, in which Rachel celebrates the “groundbreaking” selection of a black suitor, football player Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), only to pay lip service to the subject of race with Confederate flag bikinis and “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, UnREAL became as craven as the worst machine pol. In the execrable “Ambush,” for instance, Rachel calls the cops on Darius and his cousin/manager, Romeo (Gentry White), while they’re out for a joyride with two of the contestants—and so “produces” an on-camera police shooting, in the aftermath of which UnREAL focuses nearly all of its energies on her feelings, her fears, her guilt. Though the series’ metafiction confuses the matter—it shifts from critique to embrace of Everlasting’s tactics so swiftly the main thing it “produces” is whiplash—the unrestrained biliousness of the final season points to a series far more interested in exploiting its topicality than in grappling with it. “This is the most sexist, misogynistic bullshit we’ve ever done… And I love it!” Quinn cackles, gleefully, in the Season Four premiere, as if to underscore the series’ shift from treating reality TV as a target to using it as a shield. “It’s so dark! It’s so demented!”


That this mirrors The Handmaid’s Tale’s grim, occasionally disingenuous treatment of its dystopia’s internal logic—or, for that matter, ABC’s decision to move forward with its revival of Roseanne, knowing full well the extent of Roseanne Barr’s repugnant politics—is enough to suggest, if not a reaction to the recent proliferation of “topical” TV, at least a counternarrative: Not all of the medium’s fires burn with the same conviction. Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, created by Bruce Miller, is not nearly so corrosive as UnREAL, and its flashbacks to the United States during its downward spiral toward the theocratic Republic of Gilead—violent crackdowns on demonstrations, restrictions on women in the workplace, discrimination against LGBTQ people, family separations at the border—are potent gestures at the rising fascism that inheres in policies the Trump administration, and many before it, have already enacted. But the series’ present-day rendering of Gilead, its frequent reminders that the world it inhabits is also our own, is at times so insistent it seems hollow, or cheap: As Kathryn VanArendonk points out at Vulture, Oprah’s distracting voice cameo in “Holly,” dedicating Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” to American patriots and Gilead traitors, like the series’ references to Friends and free speech debates, Tinder and Twitter, renders Gilead as much a “parable” as it is in the novel. After the disastrous plotting of the Season Two finale—in which the heroine, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is led through the backyards of Gilead’s leaders under cover of night by an underground railroad of housekeepers, only to hand off her infant child to an escaping friend and fellow Handmaid, Emily (Alexis Bledel), then turn back into the belly of the beast—I’m tempted, perhaps uncharitably, to go further. The Handmaid’s Tale, following UnREAL and a number of other TV series, often appears absorbed by its—our—political moment as a device, one that produces drama, rather than informing or complicating it.

Both series’ most recent seasons conclude, curiously enough, with the same metaphor, in each case coming so fast on the heels of a ham-fisted “twist” that the meaning thereof becomes irrevocably muddied. Just as Rachel, with Quinn’s knowledge, sets fire to the Everlasting estate, and the latter, uttering UnREAL’s last words, proclaims, “We can do better,” The Handmaid’s Tale’s use of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” (“Fightin’ fire with fire”) feels less like a clarion call than an empty apologia. It isn’t enough to lean on the topical only when it’s convenient, or to take a stand when backed into a narrative or ideological corner. When UnREAL and The Handmaid’s Tale burn down their respective houses, what they “produce,” finally, is not a cleansing fire, at least not of the sort either wants to suggest. Rather, the sequences in question read as attempts to erase the evidence of bad faith, as if we might not notice the subtler crime for the large conflagration. I don’t know about you, but where I come from, we call that “arson.”

UnREAL and The Handmaid’s Tale are now streaming on Hulu.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.