How ‘UnREAL’ Used Every Trick in the Reality TV Book to Reveal Everything That’s Wrong With Reality TV

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Last summer, Fox aired a reality show titled I Wanna Marry “Harry.” The short-lived dating competition — only four episodes were broadcast on TV — pitted women against each other to win the heart of an eligible bachelor who bore a slight resemblance to Prince Harry but certainly wasn’t Prince Harry.

The women, at least some of them, believed that they had a shot at marrying literal royalty — not because it was plausible (why would Prince Harry ever do a reality show in America?), but because they wanted so badly to believe it to be true. They believed in a fairy tale — not the one sold to children in storybooks, but the one sold to adults, particularly single women, by reality competition programs.

I Wanna Marry “Harry” was gross for a number of reasons: it was gross because of the deception, gross because of the desperation (of both the competitors and the producers), and gross because it persisted in telling women that they are nothing without a husband (with the added subtext that they were too old/sad to find a husband in any way besides a televised competition). It was also gross that I kept watching, even after the show was yanked from the air and the remaining four episodes became available online.

So many dating competition shows of the I Wanna Marry “Harry” variety are now seemingly made primarily for a self-aware and smug audience. These shows don’t cater to viewers who are emotionally invested in strangers finding love as much as viewers who keep a self-satisfied distance between themselves and the show — “I would never humiliate myself in front of the cameras like that, but I’ll keep watching other people do it” — although it’s nearly impossible to not get sucked in anyway. We might realize that it’s all scripted and fake, created with brilliantly manipulative editing and perfectly placed reaction shots, yet we still keep waiting to find something that proves that it’s real, for someone to slip and show something truly revealing, not calculated for maximum fleeting fame. We’re cynical enough to appreciate the train-wreck appeal, but programmed to secretly root for a happy ending.

Maybe that’s one of the biggest draws of Lifetime’s UnREAL. Its first season, which ended last night, was brutally honest about how these fantastical romantic endings are often bullshit at best and nonexistent at worst. But UnREAL also simultaneously gave us couples to root for her and a fictional reality show to get reluctantly invested in. It even sold us a fairy tale in itself: A rich, handsome, British bachelor looking past the multiple beautiful and bikini-clad women and toward the fucked-up, messy-haired, manipulative producer in a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt.

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.