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'UnREAL' Is An Unsettling Look At Making Unsettling Television

Shiri Appleby and Josh Kelly play Rachel and Jeremy, who are uncomfortable around each other for reasons that are initially a little unclear.
James Dittiger
Shiri Appleby and Josh Kelly play Rachel and Jeremy, who are uncomfortable around each other for reasons that are initially a little unclear.

The least promising thing about Lifetime's strong new drama UnREAL, which takes place behind the scenes of a The Bachelor-like show, is its title. Yes, it's capitalized in the self-consciously offbeat way common to overvalued tech startups and adolescents experimenting with identity. But more forebodingly, it lies down and rolls around in clichéd arguments about the term "reality television," which, as those too good to watch but not too good to have strong opinions will tell you again and again with perfect confidence that someone on earth exists who has not yet heard it said, isn't real.

But on the other side of that terrible title is a show that's both engaging and thoughtful – one that's fun and highly critical and skeptical, but still feels sympathetic to people who make reality shows, people who watch them, and people on them.

At the center of UnREAL is a young producer named Rachel (played with persuasive and necessary weariness by Shiri Appleby), who's first seen lying on her back in a limo full of evening-gown-clad hopefuls, staying out of the shot, wearing a shirt that says, "THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE." That entrance is a good illustration of where the show is coming from in general, in that what could be lazy is more complicated than it seems. That shirt is not a blunt signal that Rachel is a feminist. It is an arch, aggressive comment on the situation in which she finds herself: she wants to be one kind of person; her job makes her feel like another. And perhaps it makes her another.

Constance Zimmer stars as Quinn, a producer who makes no apologies about her product.
James Dittiger / Lifetime
Constance Zimmer stars as Quinn, a producer who makes no apologies about her product.

Rachel is just returning to work after missing some time because of an incident that will gradually be revealed at a pace that feels not unreasonably drawn out, and she is uncomfortable around almost everyone: cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly), Jeremy's fiancé Lizzie (Siobhan Williams), who also works on the show, and especially Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the show boss who makes no apologies for running a tight, efficiently exploitative ship.

It's actually a little unfair to say the show within the show, called Everlasting, is The Bachelor-like. For all intents and purposes, it is The Bachelor, and like the entirely different wackadoo web series Burning Love, it has studied the details. The music is right, the sincerity-dripping host is right, and the season-opening sequence in which the girls pull up to the house one by one and try to make an impression on the British fellow at the center of the show is exactly right. The emergence of villains, the torturing of virgins, the tears of those who aren't asked to stay – the on-screen product that we see in Everlasting is very persuasively a copy of the real thing.

There will inevitably be a lot of conversation about whether this is really what happens behind the scenes of a show like this, but in the end, it doesn't really matter, because it all feels like stuff that could be happening behind the scenes of a show like this. There are multiple ways to imagine the process that creates The Bachelor; this is one of them. What's clever about UnREAL is not that it acts as an exposé, but that it takes what you see on screen and imagines what the world behind it might look like in an interesting way.

At the same time, though, there is a lot of commentary about some of the more destructive dynamics that regular viewers complain about all the time. (The idea that a show like The Bachelor is mostly watched by people who uncritically gulp it down and then happily belch flower petals is unique to people who don't know anyone who watches The Bachelor.) Quinn is horrified, for instance, when the first woman sent to meet Adam — they call him "the suitor" instead of "the bachelor" — is a black woman named Shamiqua. She doesn't care that Shamiqua went to Spelman and plays the violin; she's insistent that the first woman out of the carriage has to be serious wife material, and she flat-out declares that a black woman isn't going to cut it, because the audience just won't accept it. "It is not my fault that America's racist, people," she says.

And there's a lot more on the minds of the people writing this show: the simultaneously prudish and licentious obsession with the women's sexual histories (the deployment of the term "slut-shaming" in an entirely appropriate context is pretty unusual in a scripted show), the fine line between crazy enough for good TV and too crazy, and the fear that behind all this synthetic romance, somewhere there is a gross dude making a lot of money. In this case, that fear is well-founded: show creator Chet, played by a rough-looking Craig Bierko, is as plain-spoken as Quinn, telling Rachel at one point that she needs to keep it together: "You're not hot enough to be crazy."

One of the best things about the early episodes of UnREAL (I've seen three) is that while Rachel slowly poaches in a stew of artificial romance, there's not a particularly clear romantic direction for her. At times, there seems to be a spark over here, then over there, but she's not paying much attention to any of it. There's no central romantic plot for her that drives these early episodes, despite the fact that it's a show with a big ensemble cast full of gorgeous humans. What drives Rachel's story is legitimately her feelings, her ambivalence about the direction of her life, and there's no sense in the early going that the answer to any of this is a love story. She has discovered that she has a great talent (she's sort of a contestant handler and does some of the interviewing) that she doesn't especially want to use; what do you do with that information? That a serialized drama takes an attractive woman as its protagonist and makes her less concerned with love than with self shouldn't be unusual, but it is.

UnREAL grew out of an excellent, very dark short film called Sequin Raze, written and directed by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who's one of the co-creators here. In the film, Anna Camp plays one of the contestants, Ashley Williams is fantastic as the manipulative young producer (whose T-shirt says "George Bush Out Of My Uterus"), and Frances Conroy is the on-set doctor responsible for monitoring mental health. Shapiro is working with formidable writer Marti Noxon, who's worked with a lot of the most well-known people currently making scripted television: in the Joss Whedon universe on Buffy and Angel, in the Shonda Rhimes universe on Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, in the Matthew Weiner universe on Mad Men, and in the Ryan Murphy universe on Glee. Shapiro actually worked on The Bachelor, and UnREAL engages with, rather than dismisses, the world in which all these people live in a way that few commentators really have, and they do it in a show that's also addictive and entertaining. [If you saw this paragraph in the first two minutes or so that it was up before somebody corrected me on Twitter, you saw me miss the fact that Shapiro was a Bachelor producer. Apologies.]

It's a lot better than that title.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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