Sharp, Original ‘UnREAL’ Savages Reality TV Stereotypes in Lifetime’s Best Show in Years

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When it comes to quality scripted dramas — or quality anything, really — Lifetime is never the first network that comes to mind, if it ever comes up at all. Lifetime practically revels in its poor reputation, boasting its laughably bad biopics and questionable movies about “empowered” (but mentally/physically tortured) women. And that’s what makes the arrival of UnREAL such a rare treat. The drama, which premieres tonight, is not only addictive and entertaining; it’s also shockingly smart — and easily the best program the network has put out in years.

Annoyingly styled title aside, UnREAL is surprisingly great. It might even be the only program on Lifetime that’s built for actual, enthusiastic viewing rather than guilty hate-watching. Co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL goes behind the scenes of a fictional dating show titled Everlasting (a clone of The Bachelor), focusing on a young producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby, who gives a great performance) with a preternatural gift for manipulation. She’s masterful at getting contestants to say or do bitchy things, to fall into popular reality show stereotypes without realizing they’re being manipulated into them, and to put themselves into situations that could be creatively edited in order to tell the stories that Rachel wants to tell — not the stories that actually happened. Her ruthless boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) loves every second of this, so much so that she occasionally veers into being too cold and a cartoonish villain, but however she’s written, Zimmer nails it.

The most surprising things about UnREAL are just how interesting it is and how it works on numerous levels. It’s a serious drama, but it has nice moments of humor doled out here and there. It’s an intelligent (and important) character study. Returning to set after suffering a huge breakdown last season (which led to criminal charges), Rachel is a refreshing example of an antiheroine lead character, her strengths and flaws presented in a way usually reserved for quiet, conflicted men on AMC dramas. Though this makes sense — Lifetime should be the answer to more male-centric networks — UnReal is a welcome surprise because the network’s previous attempts at scripted fare have gone so poorly.

Rachel is aware that what she’s doing is immoral and terrible — there’s an ongoing arc involving a contestant with an eating disorder, in which Rachel both tries to help her and uses her illness to create more drama between the women. There are moments when her conscience intervenes, but never enough to make her stop. There is also the ongoing question of whether Rachel has some untreated mental illness — narcissistic personality disorder is obviously one of the few mentioned — that gives her a compulsive need to stay in this line of work.

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.