For credible drama, look to ‘UnREAL’
A fictional series set backstage at a reality show is built on strong performances.
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.”
SHIRI APPLEBY, left, with Freddie Stroma and Nathalie Kelly in the Lifetime series “UnREAL.”