Review: UnREAL (Spoiler Free)

Yesterday I talked about Bachelor Nation’s casting eligibility requirements. Today I want to talk about Lifetime’s newest show UnREAL, a scripted drama that takes place behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality television show. Because clearly I can’t get enough of unraveling this stuff, right? Right.

I’ll admit that I was first drawn to this show because I thought it would be a good laugh. As you already know, I like making fun of myself for watching The Bachelor and picking apart the eccentricities of reality television. Why do we watch the things we watch and why is this film cut the way that it is? This show promised a window into the world of fake sincerity and I couldn’t resist. At the very least, I figured that the pilot would be like watching a parody. It would be worth the hour of my time.

At the center of UnREAL is a young producer named Rachel played by Roswell star Shiri Appleby. While I’ve struggled in the past with appreciating some of her shows’ plotlines, I’ve always liked Appleby’s husky voice and her ability to play a nonchalant but sincere character. You see a lot of that going on here. Throughout the entire first episode, you see how Rachel struggles with her identity: she wants to be a good person, but her job forces her to target and play with people’s emotions. And to make matters worse, she’s very, very good at it. So good, in fact, that the network hired her back after an on-set incident with a capital “I.” I suspect we’ll learn more about what prompted that in the episodes to come.

The show within a show is called Everlasting and mimics much of what one might expect to find happening behind the scenes of The Bachelor. One of the co-creators of the show, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, even worked as a producer there. The music is sentimental, the friendly host is on point for a Chris Harrison stand in, and they even draw on the season-opening and attention grabbing introduction sequences. But UnREAL  isn’t about Everlasting; it’s about the people involved with it and the discussions which spring up around it.

In the opening minutes of the episode, a black woman named Shamiqua emerges from a carriage to introduce herself to the suitor, Adam. Immediately, Quinn, the show’s unapologetically blunt boss, is horrified. Never mind that Shamiqua went to a good university or plays the violin, she can’t be first out of the carriage because the viewers – America – won’t see a black girl as wife material. Later on, the show brings up the women’s sexual histories and mental health. How crazy is too crazy for TV? And are we finally going to get to talk about reality TV’s slut-shaming? Scripted TV often shies away from these types of topics, but UnREAL seems to be using their behind the scenes perspective to pull back the rug on conversations that otherwise get swept under. I’m excited to see how far they’ll take it.

And though I’ve only see the one episode so far, I’m already interested in these characters. Rachel, of course, has a lot of exposition on the horizon. The Incident will likely be further explained, but I’m also curious to see how her life unfolds now that it’s over. Clearly she has some self-doubt about her line of work. Then there’s Quinn. She’s unmistakably fighting for her Hollywood job, running a tight and shamelessly exploitative ship to prove she’s capable. And Chet, the company’s apparent owner, also fulfills the show’s need for a stereotypical gross dude making a lot of money by marketing synthetic romance and drama to gullible viewers. Adam, the publicity-seeking suitor willing to toy with women’s emotions for good press, also appears to be more than he seems. He can he really be that shallow, right? I doubt it. The only characters we don’t know much about at this point are Jeremy, the camera man and Rachel’s former flame, and Lizzie, Jeremy’s new fiancé. How they will fit into the overall drama, I’m not yet sure.

Overall I’d say that I’m curious about UnREAL. I’m not yet in love with it, but it’s definitely not what I was expecting. I’m pleasantly surprised by the thought put into this show, the casting, and the direction it appears to be heading. I can’t wait to see more.

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