Reality check: “UnREAL” mauls reality TV in a confident first season

When Lifetime announced they were getting into the scripted television arena, you could feel that this was yet another attempt by an upstart to get into the New Golden Age of television. There have been quite a few success stories: WGN America, BBC America, Sky, Sundance, A&E, and Cinemax have come up with shows that have received critical acclaim.

So, when UnREAL turned out to be a soapy affair with a punch, I added Lifetime to that list of successful upstarts.

The show, created by a former The Bachelor producer (Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) and an veteran producer (Marti Noxon, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), focuses on the manipulative and seedy back-scenes of a reality dating show called “Everlasting”. In a cruel turnaround of the glamourous portrayal of reality dating shows, UnREAL shows everybody involved in the production of “Everlasting” at their worst: executive producers Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko), our protagonist and producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), star of the show and disgraced British aristocrat Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), and everybody else.

The producers of “Everlasting”, including Quinn King (3rd from left), Chet Wilton (4th from left), and Rachel Goldberg (5th from left). Credit: Lifetime

UnREAL hit fast and hard; its pilot episode was assured and confident, and the rest of the season has only continued the good work. Every episode, we see Quinn and Rachel manipulate and bully the show contestants and star Adam into creating drama. What is filmed on “Everlasting” is reality in name only, as we grow so used to the producers manipulating everybody involved until we expect it.

It’s grim stuff when you consider what nasty stuff is being done: everybody is manipulating each other, secrets are wielded above heads, and people die. Rachel looks haunted half the time in the show, as we know she hates her work but loves the recognition she receives for doing her job well. Adam is the suave playboy that is trapped in his leading role by Quinn and the network’s demands. Quinn is a battle-hardened TV veteran who must face the bitter truth that her relationship with Chet was always a sham.

These people are in deep trouble in their lives, and as they try to extricate themselves from it, they pull each other further into the abyss.

In the season finale, “Future”, almost every relationship in the show blew up as the season finished strongly. Adam and Rachel’s budding romance was unceremoniously ended in the rain, Adam and (the winning contestant) Anna’s live wedding was very much ceremoniously torpedoed, Quinn got the better of Chet once and for all, and Jeremy threw Rachel under the bus by revealing her fling with Adam in front of the entire “Everlasting” crew.

It was a meditative episode in some ways: everybody knew that “Everlasting” was a sham, but in a larger theme, the prevailing idea was that true love itself is unattainable. Quinn says it when she finally relinquishes her engagement ring to Chet, and Anna’s feelings for Adam are shattered when she hears Adam’s (Rachel-manipulated) confession just before the wedding ceremony.

It also featured some sublime acting. Shiri Appleby, as Rachel, was given a tough script to follow as she had to cycle between emotional, stone-cold and heartbroken in mere seconds, and she rose to the occasion. The same can be said for Constance Zimmer, as Quinn, who sold her dawning realisation of her doomed relationship with Chet superbly.

Both Rachel and Quinn have unfortunately fallen for the wishful thinking that love would be real for them. They have both been burnt by men they thought they were truly in love with – a little rich, considering they work in “Everlasting” – and in the end, they have nobody to depend on but each other. In the penultimate scene of the episode, as Rachel and Quinn lie on deck chairs after the crew packs up, Rachel confesses to Quinn, “I love you.” Quinn, bewildered, eventually replies with a “I love you too. Weirdo.”

Rachel and Quinn, amid all the lying, manipulating, and monstrous acts they have done throughout the past few episodes, love each other. They will use each other to get what they want, no doubt, but at least they are true about their intentions. In a show dominated by so much untruths, so much un-pleasantry, and so much unhappiness, the two power players of “Everlasting” have the only relationship that matters.

That’s both beautiful and sad. UnREAL has never been afraid of putting its characters in dark places and letting them know it, and it is compulsive TV. I cannot wait for the second season.

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