Constance Zimmer, with her scratchy, slightly nasal voice and razor-blade elocution, is the ideal messenger for “UnREAL”‘s first line—its roguish thesis, its pitch-black statement of purpose. “Let’s give ’em something that they want! Ponies, princesses, romance, love!” her character, cold-blooded executive producer Quinn King, urges the crew of “Everlasting,” a “Bachelor”-style reality show, in the series premiere. “I don’t know,” she adds, her enthusiasm waning. “It’s all a bunch of crap, anyways.”
In Lifetime’s wicked, winking, thoroughly entertaining treatment of “unscripted” TV, created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the craft of “crap” is the driving force. “UnREAL” does for reality programming what “Mad Men” did for advertising: savoring the skillful manipulation as an art in its own right, without softening its stance against the form’s most contemptible compromises. Quinn and her cunning protégé, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby)—the Svengali of the bracelet ceremony and the fantasy suite, pouring poison in the contestants’ ears—shape their charges into stereotypes (“Wifey,” “Slut,” “Bitch,” “Dark Horse”), plant controversies and kick-start catfights, but their own fretful bond emerges from these machinations. “You’re a genius,” Quinn coos after Rachel sets off an on-camera scuffle. “You’re home.”
In this, “UnREAL” is the camel passing through the eye of the needle, mocking its subject while submitting to its power, focusing on two intelligent women who achieve success by extracting a pound of flesh from their peers. At its best, the series is a supreme unbalancing act, a deft sociopolitical provocation; to watch it is catch oneself in a kind of feminist wrongthink with each new narrative twist. “That’s girl power!” Rachel exclaims to Quinn at one point, celebrating their decision to keep Mary (Ashley Scott), a single mother and domestic abuse survivor, around for another week. Do you cheer their belief that an older woman can be as sexy as the bright young things in her midst, or deplore their use of her fragile sense of self? Do you smile, or do you cringe?
“UnREAL” errs, in stretches, toward the latter, to the point that Mary—whose mood stabilizers have been switched for placebos by Rachel’s recklessly ambitious rival, Shia (Aline Elasmar)—takes her own life after being forced to confront her abusive ex-husband. As Noxon told Indiewire last year, “Maybe not since ‘Larry Sanders’ has a show has been as mean about TV,” and it’s here, in the aftermath of Mary’s death, that “UnREAL” briefly abandons the semblance of satire. Though it’s the product of what amounts to poor plotting, scrambling to deal with the unsavory stakes, the first season’s seventh episode, “Savior,” is an excruciatingly effective portrait of the bad faith at the heart of what Quinn calls “good TV.” “Please,” she says, dismissing Shia’s moral qualms. “It is no worse than what happens to them in real life.”
As far as Emmy voters are concerned, this bleak view of the medium’s makers cuts both ways. On the one hand, no one wants to see their life’s work portrayed as craven, lowest-common-denominator schlock; on the other, the showbiz satire has been the means by which to air grievances over the limitations of Hollywood since the days of Norma Desmond. It’s worth noting, though, that the TV Academy honors the prickliest stories of backstage scheming almost exclusively when packaged as comedy, even if that comedy is jet-black. Since the 1990s, against the slew of nominations earned, collectively, by “The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock,” “Entourage,” “Extras,” “Episodes,” and “The Comeback,” no hour-long series of their ilk has gained much awards traction—the closest example is “The Newsroom,” a series so grimly self-serious compared to its largely L.A.-based brethren it might’ve been set on another planet, not just another coast.
Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s indelicate broadside against modern media excess, however, “UnREAL” massages its criticism of reality TV by framing Rachel as a conflicted figure, sacrificing certain convictions to change the institution from within. If Zimmer, a near-lock for a Supporting Actress nomination, channels the forbidding manner of Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen, in “Network”—”I want an honest-to-God, ring-on-the-finger, blood-on-the-sheets ratings bonanza,” she says, almost salivating—Appleby runs closer to Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig, in “Broadcast News”—brilliant but ambivalent, fraying along every edge. “As far as I can tell, everybody is manipulating everybody,” Darius Hill (B.J. Britt), the first black “suitor” in “Everlasting” history, remarks in the second season, which debuted Monday. “Yes,” Rachel replies, “but I’m the only one who’s doing it for the right reasons.”
Seen through the lens of the new episodes—in which, as with the new season of “Everlasting,” “UnREAL” struggles to dramatize a surfeit of strong ideas about race, gender, and popular culture—”Savior” begins to seem like a hitch in the series’ step, as out of character as the worst contrivances of Rachel’s first-season arc (a blackmailing roommate, an overbearing mother). In fact, “UnREAL” steams forward most swiftly when Appleby, in a dexterous performance, steers through the poles of cruelty and kindness, exploitation and collaboration, stasis and change. The key to the series is that it’s mean about TV, not demeaning, recognizing that the allure of the fairy tale is real, even if the tale itself is a fiction.
After all, Rachel herself is not immune to the fantasy she constructs: In the course of the first season, she masturbates to a romantic video she recorded with her ex, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), and sneaks into bed with the suitor, Adam (Freddie Stroma). As befits the spirit of “UnREAL,” however, Rachel is able to deconstruct the message of ponies and princesses, too, and the Jane Craig of crap ultimately follows in the footsteps of her namesake, choosing no suitor at all. Instead, she reserves the ultimate term of endearment for the work itself, or at least for its consummate craftswoman. “I love you,” she says. “You know that, right?” “I love you, too,” Quinn responds. “Weirdo.”