'UnREAL': TV Review

James Dittiger
A fascinating fictionalized look at the sleazy world of reality dating shows.

What really goes on behind the scenes of reality TV? More manipulation than you even imagined.

For those of you who hold onto the romantic notion that the Bachelor franchise helps men and women find true love and happiness, UnREAL may be a little devastating.

For the rest of us, the new Lifetime drama from creators Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro will validate every cynical thought we’ve ever had about reality TV.

Shiri Appleby (Girls) stars as Rachel Goldberg, a producer on the hit Bachelor-inspired reality show Everlasting. Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma) is Everlasting’s British bachelor. He’s made a fool of himself back in his homeland, and he’s hoping that playing the dashing suitor on TV will repair his image and make everyone forget all the things he’s done wrong.

From the horse-drawn carriages to the hot tubs, Everlasting is a spot-on take on reality romance, featuring all the archetypes we know all too well: the drama queen, the single mom and the “homely” one. Producer Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) advises the two black contestants that they need to go big — think NeNe Leakes or Omarosa — or they’re going home. “It pains my black soul, but you need to hear the truth,” he tells them. One contestant balks at his advice — “Nice work, Uncle Tom,” she tells him — while the other is willing to do whatever is necessary to become a household name.

As we all know, reality TV is excruciatingly boring if everyone gets along. Tables need to be flipped, catfights need to be had, tears need to be shed. So all of the people involved behind the scenes of Everlasting will use anything at their disposal to create the necessary drama. An abusive ex-husband, a death in the family, an eating disorder — it’s all fair game.

UnREAL shows how footage can be manipulated and confessional interviews misconstrued. Rachel is a genius at influencing a situation — she’ll ask prodding, misleading questions. She’ll plant the seeds of doubt and mistrust. She slyly tells every single one of her girls that they're “wife material.” She twists their words. There’s no low she won’t sink to, as long as it makes for good TV. And she does all of it while wearing a "This is what feminism looks like" T-shirt.

But Rachel has problems of her own — specifically a mental breakdown that she had on set the previous season. Add in a now-engaged ex-boyfriend (Josh Kelly) who works on the show, and Everlasting is a toxic environment for her. But every time Rachel thinks she’s out, it pulls her back in. UnREAL treats Everlasting like Rachel’s addiction. She knows there are many healthier places she could be working, but she can’t seem to quit the show.

If Everlasting is Rachel’s drug, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), Everlasting’s executive producer, is Rachel’s dealer. She’s made it possible for Rachel to return to work and eliminated any obstacles. When Quinn wants the contestants to be emotional, she tells the ladies to think of their puppy dying — or their implants getting infected. She admonishes them to have their dresses down and their boobs out. She offers her staff cash bonuses for nudity and 911 calls. She’s turning Everlasting’s women into monsters, and she doesn’t care.

The codependent, dysfunctional relationship between Quinn and Rachel is different for TV. Quinn worries about Rachel, but she’s willing to exploit her weaknesses to get what she needs. It’s a credit to both Appleby, who adds depth to Rachel’s world-weariness, and Zimmer, who is able to show Quinn’s vulnerability beneath her sardonic edge, that their characters do horrible, terrible things but don't come off as awful people. Much like watching the characters on The Americans, you may find yourself wanting Rachel to succeed — even when succeeding means she’s behaving very badly.

But the show is more than just a fictional exposé of the reality genre. It’s a thought-provoking soap opera with love triangles and mother issues. Although some of the plot points are too cliche (Quinn’s affair with her married boss, played by Craig Bierko, is a predictable one), the show moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.

The series was inspired by Shapiro’s independent short film Sequin Raze. Neither Noxon nor Shapiro appears to ever have been a producer on a reality show. But I believe every single thing the show tells viewers about what goes on behind the scenes. UnREAL will make you rethink every single reality show you’ve ever watched. So yes, UnREAL, I will continue on this journey with you.