If you like sentiments of the “The Bachelor” surrounding the prospect of finding true love and happiness, then Lifetime’s “UnREAL” is the show for you.
On the other hand, if you despise “The Bachelor” for its degrading representation of women as prizes and the unappealing idea that the women on the show must compete for one man, then Lifetime’s “UnREAL” is also for you.
“UnREAL” is a dark comedy-drama that simultaneously criticizes shows like “The Bachelor” and defends the producers and creators behind those shows. Based on Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film “Sequin Raze,” “UnREAL” is a collaboration between Shapiro and Marti Noxon. Shapiro knows a little something about reality shows, given that she was a producer on “The Bachelor” throughout the course of nine seasons.
While “UnREAL” is unoriginal in its criticism of reality TV, it effectively forces the audience to feel sympathetic towards reality stars. Reality shows have been criticized for being highly constructed and scripted, with an emphasis on drama that is frequently manufactured by the show’s producers. “UnREAL” explores this criticism, painting these reality stars as victims of this dishonest process.
In an ironic twist, Lifetime has been fortunate enough to produce the show, despite their plethora of shows along the same lines of “The Bachelor,” such as “Dance Moms” and “Toddlers & Tiaras.” Many critics and viewers have gone so far to as to qualify these shows as abusive to their constituents. “UnREAL” premiered in the summer of 2015 and stars Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, who play two producers attempting to pull together a fictional reality competition called “Everlasting.”
Appleby portrays Rachel Goldberg, a young mentally unstable producer with a flair for eliciting salacious content for her boss, Quinn King (Zimmer). The show follows Goldberg and King as they try to maneuver their personal lives while manipulating the contestants. Goldberg is a self-proclaimed feminist, yet also capable of bringing a female contestant to her knees in tears.
Rachel’s personal life also comes into play in terms of her struggles with mental illness. The show begins with her return from the previous season of “Everlasting” (the show within the show, which satirizes “The Bachelor”) when she was fired for a mental breakdown that almost compromised the integrity of the show. The show follows her return to work, allowed due to a specific request from Quinn, and chronicles her attempts to hold it together while contestants exhibit symptoms that mirror her own experience.
“UnREAL” eventually dissolves into a study of women tearing other women down and an exploration of the motives behind these actions. Shapiro makes it evident not only that the contestants are the victims, but that the producers eventually become victimized as well due to contractual obligations or personal reasons. She dramatizes the lives of King and Goldberg to explore these reasons. The show is revealing and thought provoking, completely absorbing its viewers and demanding more than complacency from them.
During the pilot episode, “UnREAL” avoids soap opera standards by portraying the bachelorettes as individuals who are vulnerable and distinct. The contestants are not issued with clichéd tropes to pose as gross caricatures of women, but women with power. They are not dumb; within the first twenty minutes, some contestants realize they were included in the show because they each have the characteristics of reality show stereotypes. Having been labeled with titles like “Desperate MILF,” “Bad Girl,” or “Wifey,” the contestants are aware of their roles and many try to subvert them, rendering the producers’ jobs much more difficult.
One of the strongest underscored storylines explores the lack of ethnic diversity and blatant racism on the fictional show. During the contestants’ introductions to the bachelor, the first girl plays a violin and projects classiness and romanticism, but King cuts the scene when the girl introduces herself as Shamiqua. King explains to her producers that they cannot begin the show with a black girl.
“It is not my fault that America’s racist,” Quinn says when employees cringe at her remark.
The storyline thickens with the presence of the ambitious gay black producer, who is willing to earn a financial bonus by encouraging two black contestants to play the “black bitch” role and thereby secure a spot in the Final Four, a position a black contestant has never achieved. Shapiro brings issues to light that are conveniently overlooked on actual reality shows.
Aside from addressing racism, the show also explores the nature of sexual relations, ranging from harmless infatuation to sexual abuse, and how much various aspects of this spectrum factor into “The Bachelor”-esque shows. Shapiro never shies away from extreme and taboo topics, which is what it makes “UnREAL” so great. Shows like “The Bachelor” romanticize sex, while “UnREAL” makes it clear that sex can either seal the deal for a contestant to win or let a producer interfere to remove them from the show.
“UnREAL” has accumulated critical acclaim and popular appeal, becoming a must-watch show over the summer. The show’s first season is currently available to stream on Hulu and plans to return for the summer of 2016 with an aspect of the show that “The Bachelor” wouldn’t dare touch: a black bachelor.