One Thing I Love Today: Oh my god, I actually love a Lifetime network TV show

03.08.16 1 year ago

One Thing I Love Today is a daily column dedicated to putting a spotlight on some pop culture item worth your attention. After all, there's enough snark out there. Why not start every day with one quick shotgun blast of positivity?

Right now, if you wanted to, you could probably eliminate movies from your viewing diet completely and just spend your free time trying to catch up with all the interesting TV shows that are being produced, something I would have never expected. While I have certainly seen plenty of shows I've loved over the course of my life, I've always seen films as the more interesting and diverse art form.

That's not true anymore, though. More and more, films are leaning on the familiar, while television seems to have entered a more experimental time. Sure, there are plenty of formula-based franchises on TV as well, but I've never seen an episode of any CSI series and don't feel any particular pressure to do so when there are so many good shows releasing new episodes all the time.

More and more often, cable networks are expanding what they will or won't show, and it feels like the networks that are willing to adapt and change are the ones that are thriving. For example, I think I've written about Lifetime's original programming a grand total of one time before today, when I covered that insane Will Ferrell film. I've seen plenty of Lifetime movies thanks to being married, and I find most of what they produce to be numbing. Recently, though, a friend urged me to try UnREAL, a dramatic series from Lifetime, once Hulu posted the show's entire first season.

And sure enough, I love a Lifetime TV show now. Go figure.

Created by Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who cut her teeth as an associate producer on The Bachelor, UnREAL is set behind-the-scenes on a reality show that seems to incorporate all the worst things about reality TV in general. Shiri Appleby plays Rachel, one of the show's producers, and from the moment the series begins, Rachel is on the verge of snapping, and small wonder. Forget about the manufactured drama you see on-screen on these shows. UnREAL posits that the real soap opera happens between the people who are trying to get the show on the air. Constance Zimmer plays Quinn King, the main producer on the show, and Craig Bierko is Chet Wilton, the show's creator and show runner. Rachel actually had a meltdown at the end of the previous season of the show, so everyone's surprised to see her back at work in episode one. She had to come back, though, and one of the best things about UnREAL is the way it treats Rachel like an addict working at a cocaine factory. In order to be truly great at her job, Rachel has to do some inhuman things, and that struggle is what drives much of the season's drama.

There was a point a few years back where my writing partner and I spent some time working on a home invasion horror film with three producers. Todd Garner was our old boss from Revolution Studios, and Guillermo Del Toro had been a friend for many years by that point. The one person we didn't know before starting that process was Mike Fleiss, who is one of the primary producers of The Bachelor, and working with Mike gave me an interesting window into his world. We ended up having a meeting at the Bachelor house one night simply because that's how things timed out, and even one evening of being around that atmosphere was enough to utterly destroy the notion that there is anything remotely real about reality shows. I've known several different people who work as editors in reality television, and the work they do on those programs is utterly unlike the work they do anywhere else. Editors have to build coherent stories out of the chaos of what actually happened, and they can completely and utterly transform events into anything the producers want. UnREAL does a terrific job of showing what it takes to keep a show like The Bachelor on the rails even as the contestants and the crew make every day insanely difficult.

And while I don't watch the shows that UnREAL is obviously riffing on, I don't think you have to if you want to understand the dynamics here. One of the things I always loved about Marti Noxon's work on Buffy was the way she was able to juggle both story and subtext in a way that never felt forced. It always felt natural, and at its best, UnREAL is about the way our own worst natures are both fed by these shows and responsible for the production of them. Appleby and Zimmer are both great on the show, and the entire cast ably negotiates some very difficult material. It's hard enough playing one level of a character, but these people play the public face that they want viewers of the show to see as well as the private person who they actually are, and that juggling act gives the cast room to really shine.

Most of the time, I can't stand films or television shows about the making of films or television shows. It's like asking a doctor to watch a show set in a hospital. It's all the things they get wrong that I notice, and it normally keeps me at a distance from what I'm watching. Here, though, they get enough right for me to forgive the dramatic license. I'm curious to see what a second season of this show looks like. It could easily tip over into actual soap opera, or it could retread the good things about season one, but I'm going to cross my fingers and hope for the best. After all, I wouldn't have believed how good this was if I hadn't watched it myself, and if this same creative team is place for season two, chances are we're in for something compelling. One thing's for sure… this time I'll be watching as it airs and not just waiting to catch up later.

UnREAL returns to Lifetime this summer, and season one is now streaming on Hulu.

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