Formal analysis of any given show requires an understanding of how a show looks — and how that look signifies meaning and emotion. The visuals of a show — from the look of the physical set to how the show is presented through shot and editing choices — plays a large role in the show’s meaning. For shows that are reliant on a specific time period like Mad Men or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, deliberate choices are made to ensure that the audience can get a feeling of the decade it’s set in. This specific look is then integrated into the framework of the show and becomes something that is not just a sign of that time — but also familiar.
In the case of UnREAL, the production has to include props, shots and setting choices that will signify to the audience that the characters are producing a reality show within the narrative framework. Because of this, there are several shots that reveal the constructed reality of the production of Everlasting – fake camera operators, cranes, lights and sound crew and production staff — and they add to the ethos that what you’re watching is a production of a television show rather than a production of a production of a television show.
The filming choices in UnREAL are thematically interesting because there is a lot of watching. Many of the scenes cut back to a control room, where Quinn and other producers look at what’s happening on the set of Everlasting. There are cameras everywhere, which lets both the audience and the fictional production staff lean into a tempting voyeurism. There are even elements of voyeurism and this sense of watching when the cameras are “turned off” in the fiction of the show. The episode “Mother” starts with Rachel catching Adam in the act with one of the contestants. And Rachel doesn’t really catch him — she watches through the coat rack, and the camera follows a similar, voyeuristic gaze, until Adam notices her watching and feels embarrassed.
While watching UnREAL, one is constantly reminded that everyone is being watched in one way or another. For the contestants on Everlasting, they’re being looked at by the producers and the audience at home. For those behind the scenes — the audience gets to see them when they think they’re not being watched because of the fictionalized nature of the production. This unnerving sense of voyeurism carries through the plot — and it’s only as effective as it is because its show within a show format is able to manufacture tension and emotion through visual choices.