We all know that reality shows are about as real as the body parts on an Orange County housewife. And if you don’t, well, you were due for a serious wake up call. But never before has there been a behind-the-scenes look detailing how shady and seedy the machinations of reality TV really can be. Enter UnREAL, a gripping, deliciously twisted drama series on Lifetime.
Co-created and inspired by the experiences of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer of The Bachelor, UnREAL is a scripted series that delivers a gritty look at the production of a dating competition reality series called “Everlasting.” The shows characters are a mix of contestants for the reality series, its host and star, and most engagingly, the field producers, crew and creators of the show within the show. It’s described as a dark comedy, and boy, does it ever live up to that darkness.
Two huge plot devices drive the show. One is the no-holds-barred approach of the field producers to shamelessly manipulate the reality show’s contestants and manufacture drama for no reason other than to drum up buzz and ratings for their show. These producers zip around like mad dogs without a shred of decency or morality, prying into the private lives of these women and sabotaging their standing on the show with other contestants and its suitor.
Led by a savant at her craft, Rachel Goldberg, who is brought back to the show after having a nervous breakdown the previous season, these hungry producers cook up situations that lead to the biggest meltdowns all for the sake of cash bonuses. They wage psychological warfare on these women that brings to light huge ethical concerns, particularly framed through the lens of feminism, touching on the nasty in-fighting among the women contestants for the sake of a man, and the female producers who are tasked with tearing these women down. Without giving too much away, the lack of limits these producers have in their scheming against contestants leads to the emotional, mental and physical harm of the contestants and themselves throughout the season.
The other main driving narrative arc is two highly dysfunctional relationships, both involving Rachel. One is her budding attraction and will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry with the suitor of “Everlasting.” The other is her twisted, maternal relationship with the show’s executive producer, Quinn, by far the crowning achievement of the show. This relationship throughout the 10-episode first season is fueled by blackmail and deception, at various stages acting as a mentor-mentee, mother-daughter and kidnapper-victim relationship, with hints of even a romantic, or at least highly charged and sexual relationship.
Despite hitting all those beats, what’s clear is that, no matter how fucked up and unhealthy their relationship is, they are the two people who understand and get each other better than anyone. And for the work that they do, that’s truly something they need. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are magnetic as Rachel and Quinn, acting as the pillars for a show you can’t help but watch, even though it makes you feel dirty doing it.
Therein lies the true genius and ugliness of UnREAL. Watching these producers tear innocent women apart should not be as engaging or entertaining as it is. And yet, we can’t get enough. Just as we can’t get enough of seeing our fellow man being degraded and dehumanized on national TV week after week on the countless reality shows out there. Sure, it’s hard to feel empathetic towards many of them because they knew what they were signing up for, but UnREAL touches on unsettling questions around if any person truly knows what’s in store for them by agreeing to sign their life away to a reality show, and if that makes it acceptable to torment and toy with them for the sake of our entertainment.
No answers are given, and that’s part of UnREAL’s wicked charm. In a way, the producers are avatars for society and viewers of reality TV. Their insatiable craving for drama is what drives them, and is what makes us tune in. When watching the show and seeing the deplorable things these producers do to the contestants, it not only calls into question whether or not these people are sociopaths, but also places a mirror in front of viewers of these shows to elicit an unnerving, but not at all misguided reflection of themselves.
What does it say about society that we revel in the misfortune of others for entertainment value? Are we just as culpable for the trauma these individuals go through as the producers actually pulling the strings and getting their hands dirty? The brilliance of UnREAL is that it manages to hit all these notes by being an actual, scripted dramatic series with fictional characters meant to entertain, while also provoking some serious musings about our cult of reality TV and what that says about those who love to watch.