As the producer protagonist of Lifetime’s UnREAL, Rachel Goldberg is the viewer’s liaison into the world of its reality dating show-within-a-show, Everlasting: its strange norms, characters, and behind-the-scenes drama.
But Rachel isn’t a wide-eyed ingénue who is discovering things at the same pace as the viewer (like Peggy in Mad Men). And she’s not a charming simpleton (like Kimmy Schmidt in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), or a sane woman in an insane world (Liz Lemon in 30 Rock), either. Rather, she’s a highly complex character who doesn’t always make the most admirable decisions. That’s why the viewer volleys between relating to her and being horrified by her — the hallmark of a compelling anti-hero.
The anti-hero archetype has long been fertile ground for some (largely male) protagonists in TV. And while unlikable female characters have certainly been featured in small doses, UnREAL is truly breaking ground by centering a TV universe around such a morally questionable character as Rachel. Viewers love her because she’s controversial — she is called “Little Weird” by Chet, Executive Producer of Everlasting, and she doesn’t always get along with her fellow producers. But when justifying her choice to bring back such a volatile staffer, her boss Quinn says, “Rachel gets the best sound bites and she has killer instincts for drama.”
As season one unfolds, the viewer sees what Quinn was saying, as Rachel deftly manipulates both the participants in Everlasting and many of her own coworkers. As you watch her push these buttons and pull these heartstrings you’re bound to think that Rachel is a bitch who deserves to burn in hell — but also, she’s damn good at her job.
UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gerturde Shapiro has said that she drew inspiration from Breaking Bad’s ruthless mastermind Walter White in creating a morally ambiguous character who is fantastic at a job some might call sociopathic. Rachel’s mom gives voice to this during one episode. In these scenes, the audience sees the complex family dynamic from which Rachel escaped: a wildly unethical therapist mother who medicates the entire family plus an overmedicated, ineffectual father.
Mrs. Goldberg has diagnosed Rachel with myriad disorders over the years — ADHD, bipolar, borderline personality, narcissism — and now she insists Rachel is good at her job because of these ailments, not in spite of them. Her own mother is basically saying she is a walking personality disorder, and Rachel has been grappling with this toxicity her whole life.
Despite viewer sympathy, there’s no denying that Rachel is a modern-day Lady MacBeth, planting seeds of doubt, anger, and insecurity in the minds of those around her so that they will do her bidding. Like Lady Macbeth, Rachel is ambitious, cunning, and manipulative. She knows what reality TV audiences respond to, making her the Everlasting master of puppets, though her strings are invisible (unlike, say, Producer Shia’s machinations).
Rachel’s Lady MacBeth maneuvers include planting a tabloid magazine featuring Adam on the cover in a trash bin where the girls will find it (“They took the bait”); using what she calls “toddler-level reverse psychology” to make Adam pick Faith for the hometown date; encouraging Anna to push Grace out of the way in order to “play the game,” and much more. She even deliberately throws away bulimic contestant Anna’s marker food (Cheesy Puffs) only then to play the role of the hero who will get Anna the Cheesy Puffs she needs in order to manage her eating disorder. Genius!
Her most villainous move comes when Rachel takes a catchphrase favored by her unethical therapist mother and uses it on Anna: “You have to admit that you’re sick before you can get better.” And the coup de grace of Rachel’s Lady MacBeth machinations has got to be in the season finale, when she fakes an emotional meltdown in order to get Adam to admit the upcoming wedding is a sham — all deliberately within earshot of his blushing bride.
But UnREAL doesn’t stop breaking new ground with Rachel as the quintessential anti-hero — there are more unprecedented dynamics coming up in season two, starting with Everlasting’s black suitor, pro football player Darius Hill (played by B.J. Britt). UnREAL is taking Everlasting to a place where predominantly white reality-TV dating shows haven’t yet gone: having a person of color be the centerpiece of the show.
Audiences can look forward to topical and contentious storylines about race, feminism, and the men’s rights movement among the drama. And in the background, just off camera, will be our modern-day Lady MacBeth, Rachel, whispering in a contestant’s ear and encouraging her to “stand up for herself” — or, in other words, to make good TV. Get in on all the drama.
UnREAL is coming back June 6th at 10/9c on Lifetime. I can’t wait.
Selena Coppock is a NYC-based standup comedian, writer, storyteller — and proud Bachelor Nation member. She is the author of The New Rule For Blondes (It Books/HarperCollins), a collection of funny personal essays that celebrate and subvert the blonde stereotype.