If you believe in the fantasy of reality TV, you might want to skip Lifetime’s “Unreal.” The scathing, behind-the-scenes look at the genre is going to burst the bubble of naivete in which you’ve been watching.
If you understand how unreal such shows are, tune in at 9 p.m. June 1. You’ll revel in the relentless bashing of reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”
Written and created by Marti Noxon (“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro—a former “Bachelor” producer—”Unreal” takes a darkly comic yet believable bite out of the genre, portraying the people who manufacture it as cynical vampires preying on the weaknesses of others.
“You get cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights,” Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), executive producer of “Bachelor”-like “Everlasting,” tells her producers as she sends them out to drum up some drama for the show.
Quinn’s star puppet master is Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby). A genius at the art of manipulation, the junior producer uses the personal information she trolls from the contestants to cajole, trick or coerce them into emotional outbursts and revealing breakdowns. She then twists their words into scenes that portray the situation in a less-than-truthful way.
Even though she hates herself for it, Rachel will sink to almost any depth for the sake of “great TV,” as Quinn calls it. Her job is her addiction; she knows it’s not healthy for her, but she won’t quit.
Besides, she can’t quit. A crisis of conscience during the show’s previous season resulted in an on-air meltdown that led to criminal charges against her. But the huge ratings the episode garnered—and the backing of Quinn—saved her job. Quinn knows Rachel is the best at what she does and paved the way for Rachel to return to the show. (Rachel calls it blackmail; Quinn doesn’t disagree.)
In this way Quinn, too, is a master manipulator. She knows the job is killing Rachel’s soul but has no problem exploiting her protege’s weaknesses to get what she wants for the show. Rachel, in turn, allows her to get away with it because, deep down, she loves the buzz she gets by betraying the contestants’ trust.
In one of their most horrible schemes, the two producers conspire to deny a contestant, Anna (Johanna Braddy), the knowledge that her father is about to die because they’ve decided she is the best “wife material” for the British bachelor, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma). When Anna learns that her father has died, Rachel edits Anna’s painful breakdown and subsequent rage at being used into a narrative that ignores the death but transforms Anna into the show’s villain.
UnReal review: Darkly comic, delicious
It’s to Appleby and Zimmer’s credit that their characters don’t come off as completely hateful, heartless beings. They do terrible things, but we mostly love them for it because both actresses show their characters as complex, flawed people.
Rachel is outwardly cool under pressure, but all that inner strife—the exhaustion, anxiety and guilt—seeps through in unguarded moments thanks to Appleby’s subtle performance.
Zimmer gets all the quotable lines and uses them to command every scene she’s in, like when she proclaims one contestant is the “sad, dried-up single mother Mary.” (In a more raw moment, she uses the phrase “old shriveled pussy” to describe the same contestant.) Quinn could have been a one-dimensional, take-no-prisoners boss, but Zimmer finds vulnerability and whatever bit of humanity remains in Quinn. She even manages to help viewers look past one of the weaker cliches of the show—Quinn’s affair with her married, coke-snorting boss (Craig Bierko).
While “Unreal” is highly entertaining, the moral and ethical decisions with which Rachel struggles and that Quinn ignores make the show much more than a parody of the reality genre or a quality pleasure soap.
Noxon and Shapiro are commenting not only on the illusion of reality TV, but also the willingness of women to tear down other women, the desire for 15 minutes of fame and the overwhelming narcissism invading culture these days.
What they have to say isn’t at all positive, but I applaud it.