For cred­i­ble drama, look to ‘Un­REAL’

A fic­tional se­ries set back­stage at a re­al­ity show is built on strong per­for­mances.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD TELE­VI­SION CRITIC robert.lloyd@la­times.com

Let me say that with my time on Earth be­ing limited, I have not spent a lot of time watch­ing re­al­ity shows in which a man and many women or a woman and many men gather in a big house to find what ev­ery­one agrees to pre­tend is True Love.

Still, I know enough to get where “Un­REAL” is com­ing from and where it’s go­ing. The splen­didly re­al­ized drama pre­mier­ing Mon­day on Life­time is set back­stage at just such a show. It is not a pleas­ant pic­ture. One would guess, or hope, that it’s an ex­ag­ger­ated one.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who co-cre­ated the se­ries with Marti Noxon from Shapiro’s short film “Se­quin Raze,” spent three years work­ing on “The Bach­e­lor.” Though she has been care­ful in in­ter­views to sep­a­rate this fully scripted se­ries from that merely edited one, it’s safe to as­sume that not ev­ery­thing we see here is a com­plete in­ven­tion: that story lines are mapped out be­fore­hand, that contestants are cast, un­sus­pect­ing, as vil­lains and he­roes or the “horse-faced tear jerker” and yoked to an en­gine that has no use for them as ac­tual feel­ing hu­mans.

At the same time, it mat­ters less whether “Un­REAL” is ac­cu­rate than whether it is just true enough to pro­vide a foun­da­tion for cred­i­ble drama — and it very much does. Built on a pair of strong, nu­anced, cliché-free per­for­mances by Shiri Ap­pleby as Rachel, the con­flicted Shapiro stand-in, and Con­stance Zim­mer as Quinn, her cyn­i­cal boss, this is a Life­time se­ries that tran­scends the words “Life­time se­ries.”

Life­time once called it­self “tele­vi­sion for women,” and this does have the hall­marks of the brand. It’s a story about women in which the men (no­tably in­clud­ing Craig Bierko as the show’s cre­ator) are prob­lems to solve or prizes to claim. Men are also sec­ondary to the main ac­tion, which re­volves around Rachel and Quinn, and they are sec­ondary to the sec­ondary ac­tion, which fo­cuses on the contestants. It’s pos­si­bly no ac­ci­dent that both ac­tresses are small women sur­rounded by taller ones.

Rachel, wear­ing a T-shirt that reads “This Is What a Fem­i­nist Looks Like,” is a “sound-bite ge­nius,” a kind of ma­nip­u­la­tive “guest whis­perer,” re­turn­ing to the set of a show called “Ever­last­ing” af­ter a psy­cho­log­i­cal-melt­down-cum-moral-cri­sis the year be­fore, ready to work but not re­ally re­cov­ered.

“I cre­ate con­di­tions for things to hap­pen, and then I ac­tu­ally make them hap­pen,” she tells the show’s ap­pointed bach­e­lor, a Bri­tish rich kid (Fred­die Stroma) in need of an im­age makeover.

“So you’re a wiz­ard,” he says, “dressed like a home­less per­son.”

As a show about the mak­ing of a TV show and how the drama off-screen af­fects what hap­pens on-screen, “Un­REAL” re­calls sim­i­lar se­ries from Aaron Sorkin (“The News­room”). But where Sorkin cel­e­brates work and team­work and putting aside per­sonal busi­ness to make some­thing po­ten­tially up­lift­ing to­gether, “Un­REAL” takes a darker (and yet a less preachy) view of the process. Quinn is only af­ter “good tele­vi­sion,” what­ever the cost; Rachel doesn’t quite know what she’s af­ter any­more.

The world of the set feels con­vinc­ing; it is a set, af­ter all, with lights and cam­eras and food trucks. And though there are times where plot points seem stren­u­ously aligned for ef­fect, there were times too when I dou­bly suspended my dis­be­lief and just rooted for or against the contestants — friendly and mean, smart and less smart, self-know­ing and self-de­luded, sick and well — as if I were watch­ing a re­al­ity show called “Ever­last­ing.”

James Dittiger Life­time

SHIRI AP­PLEBY, left, with Fred­die Stroma and Nathalie Kelly in the Life­time se­ries “Un­REAL.”

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