UnREAL – what do anti-heroes want?

My binge show on the weekend was the television show UnREAL – a behind the look at a making of a reality television show called Everlasting – which is a pretty much the Bachelor.

Rachel, Quinn, Chet and every other character in the show are manipulative and immoral but I love every single one of them and hope they find happiness and fulfil their dreams.  Which is where it gets tricky. As writers we are told to a character must want something to be compelling and drive the story – and I would say for an unlikeable protagonist the viewer or reader must identify with want they want.

Dexter needed to sate his dark passenger by brutally killing people, but his code required him to murder killers and the scum of the earth – so we rooted for him.  Dexter was a broken person trying to find his way in the world where other people had feelings and empathy and every time he put his knife into the chest cavity of a victim we rejoiced that Dexter was learning about love and life and becoming more human.

Walter White wanted his family to be financially secure when he died of cancer. Deciding to cook crystal meth was a quick way if a questionable way to achieve his desire. Walter’s underlying need for recognition of his genius leads him to make deeply damaging decisions, especially for his young partner in crime Jessie. Despite Walter’s prideful descent into immorality, it is his initial desperation to do right by his family that allows us to cheer him along and we are vindicated in his final redemptive act.

I am having trouble deciding what the deceitful characters in UnReal want – Rachel wants her own show, she wants to run Suitors, she wants to leave the industry and help Aids orphans, write a book, live a peaceful life in a log cabin. She wants this man, no she wants that man, or maybe this man. Each man represents a journey to the thing she wants – to be a producer, to not be a producer.  She wants to ‘do good’ but wow, the things she does to do good are dastardly. It is this vulnerable and broken indecision which keeps me watching. I cringe.  I look into her eyes and I don’t know if she will do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons, or just the wrong thing for the wrong reason. She has circles under her eyes and sometimes she looks demented and sometimes she looks like a lost wet puppy dog.

Quinn, Rachel’s mentor treats sex like something to tick off her to do list, she wants love and romance but does not believe either is real. She might truly care for Rachel, but she will break her – to get ratings for her show, or for Rachel’s own good, or to get back at her. Depends.

And then there are the contestants, the suitors, the crew, the network owners, the other producers – they can all be likeable and above reproach – they want to raise issues of injustice, they want to make meaningful television, to protect their coworkers from jail, and in the next moment to get a good story or a date with a suitor – they will do something that could cause them to burn in hell.

I worry that the demented see sawing of the characters wants and desires will not be sustainable.

UnReal is like a soap opera on steroids but smarter. The dialogue is quicker. The put-downs, aggressive and passive aggressive, are hilarious. Its exaggerated antics might be the most realistic window into real life on television.

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