[This is a review of UnReal season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
There was a time when Reality TV seemed like nothing more than a fad; that mass audiences would only find it appetizing to watch real people pursue love and money for so long. That clearly isn't the case, as ABC's The Bachelor remains one of the most talked-about love stories on television - making it fertile grounds for satire.
Enter Lifetime's UnReal, the brainchild of TV veteran Marti Noxon (Glee) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer of The Bachelor who turned her firsthand experiences into the short film Sequin Raze. The short, similarly set behind the scenes of a reality matchmaking show, wound up pursued by multiple networks before landing at Lifetime. And now that the premiere of UnReal has aired, it's not hard to see why.
To prove that UnReal would appeal to more than just the diehard reality TV fans (and was much more than a cash-in on the Bachelor popularity), Lifetime previously made the first 9 minutes of the show available online. It was enough to get us interested, and the series premiere didn't disappoint. Only one episode in, but it's already clear that UnReal is a much-needed glimpse behind the curtain for fans of so-called 'reality television' - and worth a look for all others.
The show's ensemble cast is filled with several familiar faces, but centers on Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a former producer of Everlasting, a reality TV show gathering dozens of women to compete for the affection of one eligible bachelor. After past problems with alcohol led Rachel to destroy a previous season's finale in extravagant fashion, she has sought treatment, and returned to the production to tie up her last loose ends (alongside community service and therapy).
Not everyone is pleased to see Rachel return to the show, having been surprisingly brought back into the fold by head honcho Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). There's no time to air grievances with her ex-boyfriend or replacement, since the show risks falling apart before it even begins, meaning Rachel must jump back into the deep end. Thankfully, she shows why she proved so valuable to the production immediately, offering signs of what pressures and compromises led to her breakdown in the first place.
As Rachel puts out one fire after another - a bachelor with cold feet, women ill-prepared to have their deepest secrets dragged into the spotlight - the colorful characters of film set pop up to lighten the mood, or hint at even more storylines set to resurface along with Rachel. Not every character is able to make a well-rounded impression in the premiere episode (Craig Bierko's role as Everlasting's unhinged creator, for instance), but the blend of veteran TV talent and newcomers shows incredible promise.
The actual 'romance' unfolding before the crew's eyes is far from the heart of UnReal, with the bachelor and his gallery of women seen as talent (or cattle) to be managed. There's something to be said for the surreal comedy of seeing heartfelt moments - or simply 'good television' - unfold on film as dozens of crew members stand just out of shot. But most importantly, these moments succeed due to the small details - and performances - of the women on hand, at times managing to actually recreate the type of anticipation, sympathy, and relief of The Bachelor itself. Emotions that are completely undercut in the next scene, when viewers are reminded that they've been watching a work of pure fiction.
Despite the circus of Everlasting, UnReal is Rachel's story, first and foremost. After the laughs and eye-rolls of the human caricatures vying for a single man's attention have subsided, it's Rachel who embodies the substance of the series. Having lied through her teeth, and manipulated people (deserving or not) in the name of making good television takes an obvious toll, ending the premiere with the feeling that she has regressed, returning to a previous addiction. That she seems unable to help herself makes the future of the show all the brighter.
Had UnReal been a TV series about "the real story" behind shows like The Bachelor, its success may have relied on those who feed off the voyeurism of the drama being sent-up. Instead, Noxon and Shapiro have made one massive joke of the endeavor from the outset, revealing that the men and women who manufacture the 'reality' are far more interesting. But the handful of funny, tragic, and self-aware moments glimpsed among the show's contestants offer fertile ground for the creators going forward.
UnReal's greatest strength is its dedication to showing, not telling; delivering an impossible-to-miss statement about love, romance, reality TV and desperation in every form. The peek behind the curtain of how The Bachelor is really run will get viewers in the door, but the intriguing, well-acted supporting characters and the unsettling view of happiness being offered will certainly have viewers tuning in the next week.
UnReal airs Mondays @10pm on Lifetime.