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Review: Lifetime’s ‘Unreal’ is Real Good

Review: Lifetime's 'Unreal' is Real Good

“Unreal” is a new show about the behind-the-scenes of a reality dating franchise. I will admit I’m only passingly familiar with the tropes creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro are skewering here, as I’ve probably seen more sendups of the genre (“Burning Love,” anyone?) than the real thing. After watching the first season of “The Bachelor” back in 2002, I couldn’t take any more.

But it feels pretty believable to me.

Shiri Appleby is Rachel, a seasoned producer who’s making a sheepish return to the “Bachelor”-esque show “Everlasting” after having a breakdown (well-documented, of course) at the end of the last season. Her boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), knows Rachel is still the best at what she does — manipulating women into humiliating themselves on camera to serve the show’s narrative — and she re-deploys her staffer with glee, forgiving her for past transgressions while still legally holding them over her head enough to make her, basically, an indentured servant.

Noxon, whose last venture, “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” I wanted to like more than I did, may have really found her calling with this one. It looks so much like the real thing that I imagine it will appeal to fans of the genre, and its quick pace allows for a nonstop cavalcade of small, effective digs that chip away at the idea that dating shows are harmless fun. Its creators have clearly done their homework, as with throwaway remarks like, “I need ten times more pillar candles, people!”

“Everlasting” is, in essence, depicted as a sort of human cockfight, where producers are rewarded for talking “their girls” into behaving monstrously on camera. “You get cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights,” Quinn yells as she dispatches her team. If anyone brings up the idea that someone might get hurt — mentally or otherwise — her response is always the same: “They knew what they signed up for. They all knew.”

Rachel, who shows up on set wearing a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” tee, is tormented by her job, but maybe mostly by the idea that she’s really good at it. Appleby goes low-fi for the role, appearing virtually makeup-less, with circles under her eyes and dirty hair. She’s a marked contrast to the women on the show, who walk around on set in ball gowns and tiny bathing suits, trailed by makeup people. Rachel and her co-workers hover on the edge of the action, occasionally calling their charges off to the side to whisper in their ears about how they might better their chances at winning the bachelor’s heart — which usually involves going to war with one or more of the other women.

She sees herself as different from the other producers, who seem like they’re comfortable baiting their charges into bad decisions. But this is one of the subtle pleasures of this show: Its protagonist, who’s clearly one of the smartest people in the room and a self-professed feminist, is the best at producing this kind of show. She’s got a good sense of what women want and what they’re thinking, and while telling herself she’s not the bad guy, she ends up being Quinn’s most effective weapon because she’s not as obvious about her mission as the others — or, perhaps, as self-aware about it.

She finds an unlikely ally in Adam (Freddie Stroma), the show’s bachelor; he’s a Brit hotelier whose image has been badly damaged by getting caught with a prostitute. He’s there to rehab his reputation and get his livelihood back, as Rachel reminds him when he tries to flee the show’s opening ceremony. But he’s not as callous as his image suggests, and as the show goes on, he’s increasingly disturbed by what he’s being asked to participate in — and starts agreeing to help Rachel stick it to the show by selecting the “wrong” girl during the weeding-out ceremonies.

The women, meanwhile, are all there for various reasons, as they are on the real “Bachelor” shows. Most of them seem like nice enough people who, actually, didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, and they take the bait served up by the producers mostly because they’re not cynical enough not to. In one instance, a black contestant (Natasha Burnett) is goaded into starting a fight with a white one (Breeda Wool) after being told she’d have to go “loud” in order to be one of the rare black women who makes it to the finals on a show like this.

The show takes care not to be didactic about its views, but can’t resist throwing in a little academic flourish. When Rachel goes home to ask for a loan from her parents, her psychiatrist mother makes an offhanded remark about her show. “One of my students wrote a paper on it,” she says, “about the psychological effect of ‘bully TV,’ and the effects of viewing women as chattel.”

In case you still had doubts about whether reality shows showcase reality, one of the most wrenching twists in early episodes sees a contestant being denied the knowledge that her father is in the ICU with a heart attack; she only finds out too late, when he’s dead. Rachel, badly in need of Quinn’s cash prize, subsequently edits the woman’s pain and rage into a narrative that makes her the show’s much-needed villain, conveniently editing out the dead father part.

Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose award-winning short film “Sequin Raze” (which the show is based on) took place behind the scenes of a reality show, has said she and Noxon “really, really care about both the contestants and the producers, and the whole world. There’s a poignancy and an ache to the whole thing that really needs to feel grounded and human.” To this end, the show — unlike the show-within-a-show — doesn’t have a villain, though it would have been easy enough to make it Zimmer’s character. But Quinn is shown as a complex, flawed person; like Rachel, she knows what she’s good at and what she has to do to earn her paycheck. She’s also involved with the show’s married executive producer and worried about what that arrangement, in the long run, will do to her. I’ll be curious to see how she evolves — or devolves — over the course of this season — and I really hope this one is a big enough hit that Lifetime brings “Unreal” back for more.

“UnREAL” debuts Monday, June 1, at 10/9C.

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