Even when I watched far more reality TV than I do now, I had zero patience for dating competition shows. And I haven't watched a Lifetime show regularly since “Any Day Now” ended waaaay back in 2002.
Yet I've already set a DVR season pass for “UnReal,” Lifetime's new drama set behind the scenes at a thinly-disguised version of “The Bachelor.” That's how good it is.
“UnReal” (it debuts tonight at 10) was created by TV veteran Marti Noxon (whose Bravo show “Girlfriends Guide to Divorce” debuted earlier this year) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, adapting Shapiro's short film “Sequin Raze.” The show aims to pull back the curtain on reality TV to demonstrate just how much of a role production plays in manipulating and/or altering events to turn complicated human beings into two-dimensional character types (the bitch, the virgin, the desperate cougar) who can fill familiar roles in the same old storylines.
Our would-be “Bachelor” series is called “Everlasting,” produced by Quinn (Constance Zimmer, finally getting to be Ari Gold rather than one of his many punching bags, and being terrific at it), who's ruthless and unapologetic about making sure the trains run on time. The series opens with Quinn doing a nasty running commentary on all the participants from the control room where she is the all-seeing, all-mocking god of this particular universe. When an underling chooses an African-American woman as the first contestant to meet bachelor Adam (Freddie Stroma), Quinn – knowing that minority women never win on this type of show – snarls, “First girl out of the carriage is always a wifey, and that is not a wifey.” Later, when the staff psychologist suggests one of the women shows signs of PTSD, Quinn replies smugly, “And that is why we cast her: for the crazy!” Besides, she adds, seeking the last refuge to justify how she hustles and misrepresents the people on the show, “She know what she was signing on for.”
Our guide to this world is less Quinn, who's gone too native to function as an audience POV character, than Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a producer first seen lying on the floor of a limo carrying four would-be bachelorettes to the set. They're decked out in slinky dresses; she's wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt, and hoping that the wardrobe choice and her constant look of dismay are enough to distance herself from the show that provides her paycheck.
A less interesting drama – or a reality show much like the one “UnReal” is fictionalizing – would make Quinn the clear villain, and Rachel the hero looking to tear down this rotten system from within. “UnReal” has something more complicated in mind, placing Rachel in a series of compromised positions that ask her to choose between her ethics and her very tenuous position on the show(*), and giving Quinn a level of humanity in her personal life that she's chosen to wall off when she's on the job and offering underlings cash bonuses for “nudity, 911 calls, and catfights” and articulating the show's weirdly Puritanical attitude about female sexuality by saying, “Sluts get cut. Nobody wants to take them home to their mommy.”
(*) Lifetime largely sat on the sidelines of cable's Age of the Anti-Hero, but Rachel – who, when the series begins, is returning to “Everlasting” after a high-profile meltdown, and who may (depending on which doctor you ask) have some mental health issues that predated her involvement with the show – fits neatly into that tradition, even as the writers and Appleby make her into very much her own character. The show sympathizes with her to a point, but never tries nominating her for sainthood.
Through the three episodes I've seen, “UnReal” is simultaneously a very dark satire of reality TV and a soap opera that breathes new life into old tropes by placing them in this very familiar, modern setting. The story of the making of a show like this is ultimately far more exciting than the shows themselves seem to be, where the depth and contradictions of these people keep getting in the way of the stock characters the producers keep trying to turn them into. (A producer tells the two African American contestants that if they want to go far in the season, they'll have to go full-on Omarosa or NeNe Leakes and start trashing everyone in sight; one of them indignantly notes that she went to Spellman and clerked for a Supreme Court justice, while the other seems willing to consider it, since she only went on the show in the first place to promote her business.)
Of course, I come into something like this heavily biased for explicitly scripted fare over the likes of “Everlasting.” To hardcore reality TV viewers, “UnReal” could well play the way “Studio 60” did to “SNL” fans. But while I've watched maybe 2 or 3 combined hours of “The Bachelor” over the life of the franchise (at least half of which was flashbacks to events from right before the commercial break or teases of things coming at the end of the episode), I've seen enough reality overall for this to ring true.
And regardless of how close “UnReal” gets to, well, the reality of the kind of show it's dramatizing, it works very, very well as an actual drama.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org