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UnREAL is the summer show you should not miss

Shiri Appleby (left) stars as a producer of a very Bachelor-like reality series on Lifetime's UnREAL. (Photo by James Dittiger/Lifetime)

Although it follows the behind-the-scenes production of a dating reality series, Lifetime’s UnReal is a scripted drama. The show within the show, Everlasting, is also fake. Yet in its first hour alone, there’s far more truth and reality on UnREAL than there is in the reality series that inspired it, ABC’s The Bachelor.

At we’re introduced to the world, it feels like the kind of fiction that’s actually nonfiction but has just changed small details. Yet UnReAL can also stand on its own. This is no mere Bachelor parody. It’s a terrific television series that also happens to expose how some reality shows–and one big ABC one in particular–are created.

The series, which debuts tonight at 10 p.m. ET, is produced by Marti Noxon and and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, and is based on Shapiro’s short Sequin Raze, which focuses on the interaction between a reality show producer working on a Bachelor-like show and a contestant. The world introduced there has expanded into a full series which really covers all aspects of production.

The Bachelor parody that is not a parody of The Bachelor

Shapiro was a Bachelor producer. For nine seasons. Yet in January at TCA, she tried to insist it is not at all supposed to be The Bachelor. When asked about her previous job and its relationship to the show, she told TV critics,

“The funny thing for me is that I’m a writer first and foremost, and I’ve actually been writing much longer than I ever worked in reality. So it was a day job that I had at 23. When Marti and I sat down to really come up with this show, it was a great world to set it in. It’s like I knew how to put up the wallpaper, but it’s totally fictional.”

Noxon said:

“We took the world and stuff that anecdotally we’d heard from all kinds of sources, and we made stuff up. So but I think that Sarah’s intrigue with it started, of course, because she was exposed to it. But this is completely not related to those things.”

Please. Just watch the first nine minutes and try to imagine this as anything other than The Bachelor:

As you can see, the manison looks like The Bachelor’s mansion. The production is based in the mansion’s garage, just like the ABC show is. You can draw lines from characters on this show to people in real life–including the star, Rachel, who seems like she’s modeled after Shapiro.

Those implausible claims aside, this is a a highly plausible world, one that does the best job I’ve ever seen of exposing just how over-produced some shows are. There are leaps and not-very-plausible things, like the host recording narration for teasers on the second day of filming, in the middle of the control room, or the producers who wrangle contestants physically editing their own footage.

You can see how the entire production works to send the bowling ball down the lane, guiding it the whole way until it hits the pin they wanted it to hit. The ball may move on its own, but are its movements unscripted? Is this real?

Strong characters, a brutal reality

What UnREAL really cares about, though, is who’s guiding the ball, what they do, why they do it, and how they affect others.

Constance Zimmer’s executive producer character, Quinn, is a House of Cards-level villain, stopping at nothing to produce her show. The series makes that clear from its first few moments, opening on her interrupting production with a racist response to what’s happening as the bachelor meets a bachelorette. When she blames her racism on the viewing public’s racism, it’s both appalling and, sadly, a credible argument.

Her foil is returning producer Rachel, who, as played by Shiri Appleby, simultaneously embraces and rejects the world she’s part of. She’s exceptionally good at her exceptionally awful job. The things she does are often inexcusable, but Appleby keeps us aware that Rachel is conflicted even as she’s being cold and calculating. It’s also clear that Rachel gets pleasure from her ability to thrive in this world.

Appleby and Zimmer’s characters anchor the series, and both do terrific work. The supporting cast is strong, too, including Freddie Stroma as the British bachelor and Josh Kelly as a camera operator who also hates his job yet does it anyway. Those who play the bachelorettes are also convincing, both as people who’d apply to this kind of show and then allow themselves to be so easily manipulated.

The second episode wavers a little, introducing some external characters who are too thinly written and badly acted to be believable as anything other than plot points. It becomes more of what you’d expect from a Lifetime series, more melodrama than HBO drama, though it eventually finds its way back to the episode-one level of excellence.

When UnREAL stays with Everlasting, it works. What happens to one of its contestants at the end of the episode is both appalling and completely believable; a version of this just happened on The Bachelor, assisted by the media, which is all too willing to buy into the on-screen version of events as raw truth instead of heavily produced and manipulated reality.

Watching UnREAL is like going back into the kitchen to see how your food is being prepared. Actually, no, the show goes all the way to the slaughterhouse and shows everything. The question is, do you want to eat a fast food hamburger after seeing how it was created, from start to finish?

Will it be possible to watch The Bachelor as light entertainment after seeing the bloodbath take place, watching people wantonly wreck other people’s lives to create entertainment for us? The irony is that UnREAL itself is absolutely entertaining television, and it’s enjoyable perhaps because we know that the specific things we’re seeing are fiction. But of course, they’re also not.

 

Correction: The original version of this story said Shapiro worked on The Bachelor for nine years; it was actually nine seasons over three years, according to her interview with the Los Angeles Times. Apologies for the error.

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