UnREAL was the summer’s most surprising breakout hit, and possibly — OK, definitely — Lifetime’s best-ever scripted program. The series, which has already been renewed for a second, explores the behind-the-scenes world of a reality dating show (appropriately, nauseatingly titled Everlasting) and follows the crew that is tasked with manipulating the participants’ every move. It’s a master class in puppetry, particularly for Quinn and Rachel, who are intelligent, conniving, and genius manipulators.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was the most successful aspect of UnREAL‘s first season: the harsh reality of “reality TV,” the accurate depiction of reality-show stereotypes, the dark twists and turns that crept in out of nowhere, the horrifying look into the ways innocent(-ish) contestants are controlled, modeled, torn apart, and completely broken, all for the spectacle — not unlike actual reality shows. Over and over, as women are kicked off the show or emotionally destroyed or even basically driven to suicide, we’re reminded that there is no fairy tale ending for Everlasting or UnREAL, because women are so rarely given a happy ending in reality, television or otherwise.
Yet despite knowing all of this — despite watching all of this — we’re still given couples to root for (well, really, couples to ship): Rachel and Jeremy, her ex-boyfriend-slash-occasional-current-hook-up; Rachel and Adam, the British bachelor who women are fighting over while Rachel effortlessly slips into bed with him; you can ship Quinn and Chet, if you’re feeling ultra-cynical and masochistic; or even Quinn and Rachel, two women with an infectious love/hate relationship (and the strongest bond on the series), who are both too fucked up for relationships but still better than the various men that they are paired with. Quinn and Rachel are sometimes vile to each other, but under the guise of sort-of love and sort-of protection (protection of each other and protection of the reality franchise they’ve each put their whole lives into). These two characters are the women antiheroes that television has been lacking. In a world of Walter Whites and Don Drapers, the women surrounding them get pushed to the background or relegated to “shrew” wives; in UnREAL, it’s the women who get to have all of the fun — even if that fun is at the expense of others, and themselves.
So, no, neither Everlasting nor the UnREAL Season 1 finale ended like a joyous fairy tale. Unsurprisingly, neither did I Wanna Marry “Harry” — the winner said that she and Not-Prince-Harry have “spoken regularly,” which doesn’t exactly scream everlasting romance. But UnREAL did give us a nearly flawless season of television (look at how the show deployed a soap opera-esque suicide out of nowhere and then managed to back itself out of that corner without bringing down the overall quality of the show) and two women we love to hate but also just love to love. It demonstrated why we shouldn’t love reality shows and also why we can’t stop enjoying them; it gave us the idea of a fairy tale while destroying romance. UnREAL was the most enjoyable series of the summer, but also the most bitter.