This week, I turned to “UnREAL,” a new Lifetime drama set behind-the-scenes at a “Bachelor”-like reality show called “Everlasting.”
In the olden days (now there’s a conversation-stopper), when I reviewed ads for Adweek, I sometimes got advance DVDs of the biggest Super Bowl commercials. (This was before everything was previewed online.) And they often came with a companion “The Shooting of…” DVD. Inevitably, I found the behind-the-scenes version, made for about 1/50th of the budget, far more compelling than the spot that the brand would break the bank on. We all love what’s behind the curtain.
Still, I didn’t go into this binge with high expectations. First of all, I never liked the word “unreal.” (It’s also the name of a first-person shooter game.) And I like it less when the "un" is lower case and the "REAL" is capitalized. Second, I imagined it was a comedy that wouldn’t be very funny, because “The Bachelor,” with all its glass-slipper-fantasy-throwback faux solemnity (“Ladies, there is one rose left”) and hypocrisy, while pushing bikinied-makeout sessions in the hot tub, is so over-the top that it is unparody-able. And by now, viewers know the tropes, and still seem to watch.
I also imagined that this show couldn’t be that bold because “UnREAL” is on Lifetime, a cable network that is not exactly known for its golden-age-of-television creating machine, like Amazon or Netflix. (Sexist, I know!)
And Lifetime is 50% owned by ABC and Disney, for whom “Bachelor” has been a fairly stable cash cow for lo these 13 years. (Yes, Bar Mitzvah age — today, the Bachelor is a man!) So I assumed there would be all kinds of ongoing legal issues with ABC, etc. that would compromise the content from the get-go.
That’s the thing about prejudice. I was wrong on all counts. (Except for the capital letters part. That still bugs me — and is visually ugly.)
Sure, I realized that over the years, the sheer cognitive dissonance, the unreality of reality programming, is jamming our minds and warping the universe. (And is probably also responsible for global warming and ISIS.) But still, I wasn’t prepared for something this bleak and dark — like East-Coast-power-outage-at-3 a.m. dark.
The benign take is that you will never watch another reality show without imagining the producers in the control room, (or right behind a bush, or in a waiter’s outfit for a cocktail party) ratcheting up the tension, screaming for blood, and pushing more alcohol on the exhausted (and sometimes already mentally suspect) contestants. Sure, you can say that’s what they signed up for, but they tend to break after weeks of no sleep, no cell phone contact, no reading the news, and becoming the objects of such cruel manipulation.
But more surprising is how psychologically deft, smart and deep the writing for most of the characters seems. (At least for the females. The males are a bit clichéd, which turns the usual TV writing cliché on its head!) But what’s so off-putting is all part of the pudding that makes "UnREAL" stunningly fresh and audacious. It’s radical, even. That’s because it features what may be our first-ever Walter White/Tony Soprano/Dr. House female antihero. (Applause?)
That character is Rachel Goldberg, who sports a name similar to the show’s creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. Shapiro happens to have worked as an indentured servant (I mean line producer) on “The Bachelor” for two years before escaping to Portland, Ore., where she claims she was bent on becoming a kale farmer. But actually, Wieden & Kennedy scooped her up, and backed her short film on which the show is based, “Sequin Raze.” And to its credit, W&K is one of the producing partners of “UnREAL.”
Shapiro’s co-creator is Marti Noxon, a TV veteran who among other things, co-wrote some of the strongest episodes of, wait for it, “Mad Men.”
“UnREAL” debuted in June, and just got renewed for a second season. I watched all the episodes on Lifetime On Demand. I was iffy on the pilot, and bowled over by the third episode.
Basically, we watch the set behind the “Everlasting” set, a universe run by Quinn King (played by the always excellent Constance Zimmer), the rapacious executive producer, and her young producer pet, the aforementioned Rachel Goldberg (not even acted — but embodied — by Shiri Appleby.) The acting is off-the-charts good. It seems Rachel, who is now essentially homeless, sleeping in the sound truck and having trouble remembering to wash her hair, had a nervous breakdown on camera the previous season, resulting in jail time and copious legal debts. She has now returned, ostensibly to make enough money to pay off her debts.
But the real question at the heart of the show is whether Rachel, who is so good at befriending and manipulating the contestants, and therefore invading their souls, can ever find her own.
I don’t want to give away many spoilers. But suffice it to say that the contestants include a bipolar single mother who is encouraged to go off her meds, a virgin who is encouraged to come out as a lesbian, and an anorexic lawyer who finds out her father died while filming, but who is implored to stay for the equivalent of the rose ceremony. She runs off the set into the dark woods and is hunted down in a Jeep like an animal. (The cameras are the hunting rifles.) After her father’s funeral, she comes back to the show -- because Rachel manipulates her into it, and even her now-orphaned teenaged brother implores her to go because he figures the can get an X-box out of the deal.
The surreal thing is that for Rachel, the set -- where she works on others people’s insecurities to create new drama -- is the only place she feels successful or in control. And thus it becomes her home.
In one episode Rachel actually goes home to her parents’ house, ostensibly in search of a loan. (She takes a show van, though she’s driving on a suspended license.) In a conversation with her shrink mother (natch!), we find out that she has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She counters, “first it was ADHD, then bipolar, then BPD, or maybe Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I have trouble keeping them straight.”
Certainly, that’s a metaphor for the people who are most successful at creating this reality business -- and for that matter, most businesses. As with sociopaths, they have no conscience and see everything as a game that they are entitled to win. Step back, and the whole world is a reality show and we are just the poor sap contestants.
But in the end, “UnREAL" is so smart that it never lets us forget what the point of the show within the show is. As squawked into a walkie-talkie by Quinn, the EP: “We are selling true love here, people!”
There’s so much cynicism and irony, it’s hard to keep up. At the least, it should make ad peeps feel a little better about what they do for a living.