'UnREAL' revives reality TV

Lifetime

By Hailey Middlebrook, Daily Arts Writer
Published June 7, 2015

It’s no secret that reality TV competitions are falling fast. CBS’s “Survivor” is just barely surviving, the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model” is raking the bottom of the viewership barrel and FOX’s once-goliath “American Idol” has finally bitten the dust. The truth is, times have changed — what piqued our interest in 2005 is dramatically different 10 years later. What’s in today are smart, binge-worthy sitcoms and dramas and reality shows that don’t pretend to be sincere. What’s out are the reality competition shows that walk the line between real and rigged, with contestants who are pathetic at best and cringe-worthy at worst — whose behind-the-scenes agendas are the most appalling of all.

“Unreal”


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Series Premiere
Lifetime


And yet, people still watch them. There’s a reason tabloids like People and Us Weekly have latched onto ABC’s “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchise, splashing the shows’ latest upsets across their covers. Whether viewers watch for the cat fights or the over-the-top dates, the hot guys or the shocking confessions, they’re engrossed in the “realness” of it all — the girls may be fake, the guys in it for the fame, but it’s still a reality show, no? The bachelor still ends up picking “the one” and the in-it-for-the-wrong-reasons jerks get filtered out, right?

Not so fast. In “UnREAL,” Lifetime’s newest comedy-drama, what’s behind the camera comes to the forefront — and it’s not all roses and romance. The show centers on a show-within-a-show called “Everlasting,” a reality romance competition so familiar that it might as well be called “The Bachelor”: there’s a hot and eligible British suitor, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”), who’s given the task of finding his perfect match from a lineup of 20 or so hot and eligible girls.

As Adam waits outside the candlelit castle (emphasis on the candles; more on that later), the girls filter out of limousines, trying their damnedest to make a sexy first impression while also proving that they’re serious wife material. At the end of the night, Adam dons roses to the lucky girls while the losers get loaded back into the limo. And then the real fun begins.

That’s what they want you to think, anyway. Pan out from the sipping-champagne-in-the-limo camera shot and you’ll find Rachel (Shiri Appleby, “Swimfan”), clad in a “this is what feminism looks like” T-shirt, lying between stilettos on the limousine floor and looking utterly disgusted. She’s revealed to be a producer who’s given instructions via mic by Quinn (Constance Zimmer, “Entourage”), the show’s executive producer who makes Cruella de Vil look like Molly Weasley. But Rachel’s role isn’t just to make sure sequins are in place and champagne glasses are filled. She’s more of a puppeteer. The game is simple: Quinn labels the girls and arranges the drama, then Rachel pulls at their strings to make them dance. Ever notice why the shows always have a drama queen, a virgin, a single mom and a cold-hearted villain? Because their roles make for good “reality” TV, as do dozens of other details, such as the sea of candles and the masterfully manipulated confessions. Or even the first of the first impressions: Quinn quickly cuts the scene when a Black contestant is the first to exit the limo, for the first girl must be “wifey” material (“It’s not my fault America’s racist!” she explains).

But wait, Rachel’s a feminist — at least according to her T-shirt and a comment about her women’s studies degree — so why is she here? It turns out some of the producers do have souls, or did anyway. In a few “Everlasting” seasons previous, Rachel had a raging meltdown at the show’s finale that resulted in a devastated contestant, a stolen car and a lockdown in rehab. Despite the incident, since no one can top Rachel’s eye for drama, Quinn wanted her back — and she’s hanging a jail sentence over Rachel’s head as incentive.

If nothing else, “UnREAL” is catchy because of its originality. And, apparently, its authenticity: written by former “Bachelor” producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose short film “Sequin Raze” inspired the show, the documentary feel of the set makes it all the more startling. It makes you pity the producers, for they’re slaves to ratings charts. It makes you pity the contestants, because they’re simply role-casted meat puppets. It makes you ponder the difference between “reality” and “scripted” TV, about whether the latter can be more truthful than the former.

But even as “UnREAL” pulls at your heartstrings and twists your stomach, you can’t help but wonder if it’s manipulating you, too.