Yesterday afternoon, fans of “UnREAL” — which gets ruthless about the reality of making a reality dating show — got some great news: Lifetime, which took a chance on expanding its brand to becoming the sort of network that lets women shout the word “pussy” at each other, gave the show a second season.
And then last night, “UnReal” took maybe the darkest turn yet of the season, which is saying something for a show that, since its premiere, has been rooted in exploiting the worst parts of humanity in the name of creating great television. No spoilers, but Episode 6, “Fly,” was one of those pivotal moments for a series that has had us fascinated from the beginning, but was forever teetering on the verge of just how far it would go with its set-up: Over a dozen beautiful bachelorettes are brought to a gorgeous mansion to compete for the heart of a potential Prince Charming…
Except Prince Charming Adam (Freddie Stroma) is a selfish cad, the bachelorettes have no shortage of their own personal problems, and everyone is in it for themselves, including the producing staff behind the scenes, lead by the tough-as-brass lead producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her staff of manipulating deceivers. The best of them is Rachel (Shiri Appleby), which is to say, she’s the best at her job despite the fact it’s killing her inside.
More and more these days, there’s a reluctance to rush to judgement on a new series based solely on its pilot. Plenty of series have had outstanding first installments only to crash and burn during Episode 2; some premises just aren’t meant to last more than 22 or 45 minutes, or fall apart for other reasons.
Which is why it’s so satisfying that “UnREAL” has had the opportunity to evolve into a character drama that’s truly engaged with both its subject matter and what that subject matter says about television. Creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told Indiewire earlier this year that their interest wasn’t in parodying or satirizing shows like “The Bachelor,” and that’s paid off in a series that really lets itself indulge in its dark side. The events of last night’s “Fly” might push the show over the edge for some people, but it’s a big risk that elevates the sex and scheming to a new level.
One of the fascinating tricks that “UnReal” has managed to pull off is utilizing the tropes of the reality TV format to drag viewers even deeper into their personal investment in these characters. Because that’s one of the best tricks reality TV pulls off: taking real humans and simultaneously drawing out their worst qualities while also giving them the opportunity for raw moments of humanity. Whether that happens while hanging with your fellow K-named sisters, competing to make the best goddamn risotto or seeking true love, the tricks of the format work to captivate. And that includes the ones we in the audience don’t see, like the sleep deprivation, the isolation from friends and family, the free-flowing alcohol, or the basic stress of being on camera for hours a day.
“UnREAL” reveals those things, though, as well as the behind-the-scenes debates that go into storylines, especially when it comes to which girls in the competition are in the spotlight.
That’s actually something the show struggles with a bit, over these first six episodes: balancing its characters, especially the female contestants who, in theory, we’re rooting for to win the competition (to various degrees).
The choice to feature some of the most promising girls in individual episodes (from the beginning, there’s a clear acknowledgment that most of these bachelorettes are not serious contenders and are just there to create interesting drama) is smart. But it means that when Anna (Johanna Braddy) complained about not getting much screentime since the episode of “Everlasting” from a few weeks ago, it serves as almost a meta acknowledgment of her character’s own decreased screen time since that episode.
Some of these girls, though, we’re still rooting for, including Rachel the producer, weirdly enough. Because the real battle being fought on “UnREAL” isn’t the struggle to be Adam’s chosen bride; it’s the battle for Rachel’s soul. And when you think about it like that, “UnREAL” doesn’t feel like such a weird fit for Lifetime. A story that digs into the moral and ethical quandaries of a female professional? Maybe this wasn’t true a decade ago, but today that’s definitely “television for women.” It’s television for men, too. But men have plenty of complicated heroes to identify with these days. Welcome, Rachel, to the roster.
“UnREAL” airs Mondays at 10pm on Lifetime. (There are three episodes left in Season 1.)