UnREAL also works as a workplace comedy, though I wouldn’t expect to see any kind of Pam/Jim or Leslie/Ben storyline here; Rachel’s ex-boyfriend, a camera guy, has a new fiancée, and the show doesn’t concern itself too much with pushing them back together (it does, however, hint at other sources of chemistry). Quinn, meanwhile, is involved with a married man. But the show certainly remarks on the dynamics between boss and employee, as well as the competition between coworkers (the producers are offered financial incentives, which Rachel desperately needs, for getting certain contestants to become the “bitch” of the house and otherwise provide the show with better drama).
Most successfully, UnREAL is both a tribute to and a parody of the reality show world, especially dating shows, and provides an unflinching look at the horror and sadness of the contestants and the ways in which the producers manipulate them. Contestants are encouraged to be seductresses but are then slut-shamed in order to maintain the “fairy tale” romance of Everlasting. Their real problems — an eating disorder, the death of a family member, their loneliness — are pushed aside or used to manufacture conflict.
UnREAL doesn’t tiptoe around the racism that plagues reality dating shows. Early in the pilot, when a black contestant named Shamiqua is the first to arrive in the carriage, Quinn shuts it down because “black” doesn’t translate to “wife potential” for the series’ viewers, even though Shamiqua went to Spelman and flawlessly plays violin. “It’s not my fault that America’s racist,” Quinn shrugs. Later, the two black contestants are told that they have to act big and loud because only sassy black women move forward in the competition, not exactly as viable contestants but as characters. As the producers of Everlasting say, “crazier is better” — even if that means casting someone who has had a few stints at a psychiatric ward.
If UnREAL seems a bit too real, it’s because co-creator and self-proclaimed feminist Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as a producer on The Bachelor — a job she ended up hating so much that she told her boss she was considering suicide in order to get out of her contract. Shapiro’s knowledge of the inner workings of a reality program are on display here, as is her disdain for them. What’s especially impressive, though, is how you’ll become not only enthralled with UnREAL but also a bit invested in the fictional Everlasting, even eagerly awaiting the elimination ceremonies. UnREAL is deliciously addictive and admirably sharp — two feats that you wouldn’t normally expect from Lifetime, but in a series that would be a must-watch on any network.