The New Shows of Summer: UnReal

by Matthew Thompson

Lifetime’s new drama UnReal peers behind the curtain of a fictional Bachelor-esque dating show called Everlasting. I basically checked this out on the recommendation of some folks on a discussion forum I frequent, only knowing that basic premise and that it was supposedly a good show. Perhaps because the only thing I’ve ever seen like it was Burning Love, I was expecting something a little goofier. What I found instead was a much darker, more interesting take on the subject matter.

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To be put it bluntly, UnReal is pretty fucked up. A large amount of the entertainment comes from watching Everlasting’s producers manipulate the contestants to create the kind of over the top drama and crazy antics that their audience craves. It is even more fucked up when you realize one of UnReal’s co-creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, spent a few years as a producer on The Bachelor meaning that some of what we see is likely based on her real-life experiences.

At the center of the series is a wonderful performance by Shiri Appleby in the lead role of Rachel Goldberg. Circumstances have brought Rachel back to her producer position on Everlasting after leaving the show the previous year (the show smartly hints at why she left before revealing it to close out UnReal’s impressive pilot episode). Anti-hero characters are nothing new on TV these days, but Rachel feels unique amongst that ever-expanding group. She isn’t a gangster or a drug dealer, but she still does some nefarious shit in her role as producer of a reality TV show.  And like many an anti-hero before her, she is so good at doing these awful things that you can’t help but respect it. Like how in the pilot she tricks Everlasting’s suitor Adam to stick with the show by threatening to trot out the back-up suitor (who doesn’t exist). Or the way she manages to get the exit interview material they need from the first girl booted from the show despite that contestant’s best efforts to give them nothing to work with. Not only will you respect what she does, you will likely get some perverse enjoyment out of watching Rachel operate. She is damn good at her job. This isn’t meant to paint her as one-dimensional (she definitely has some other layers to her), but I think the show’s take on this anti-hero archetype is perhaps the most fascinating thing about Rachel’s character.

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While Rachel is the star of the show, she does have a solid supporting cast around her. Her boss Quinn is another rung up on the evil ladder from her and Constance Zimmer clearly relishes the role. The aforementioned Everlasting leading man Adam turns out to be far more complicated than he seems at first glance. Those vying for his attention on the show within the show largely fill certain roles you’d expect for contestants on a dating show, but they do it well and a few veer off in some unexpected and fascinating directions.

UnReal is at its best when the show sticks to the dark satire that made it so engaging from the outset. Unfortunately the season veers a bit more towards its soap opera side in the back half. That means a bit too much melodrama, more focus on a couple of relationships for the two main women that I never found myself very invested in, and one plot point at the midpoint of the season that was just too ridiculous for my tastes. None of this sinks the season by any means, but I am hoping the show returns to the form that hooked me in during the show’s better first half when it comes back in Season 2. There is also an inherent trashiness given the type of show it is sending up. This may or may not be a turn-off for some viewers. It was for me, but I still found myself drawn enough to some of the other elements of the series to look past this aspect.

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UnReal is definitely an acquired taste. It doesn’t have the universal appeal of Mr. Robot. It isn’t as easily recommendable as Humans either. But for the right audience, UnReal will provide an addictive addition to their TV line-up. There is nothing quite like UnReal (that I watch at least) which I appreciate even if some parts of it clash a bit too much with my sensibilities and personal tastes.

Spoilery Bullets:

  • I don’t watch dating shows, so I have no idea if doing so would make watching this better or worse. I guess it depends on why you watch said dating shows.
  • Jeremy is the worst. Not because he is the worst person (that would actually kind of be a plus on this show). He is just bland as fuck. I never cared about him and Rachel getting together. I also didn’t really like her and Adam either though.
  • Likewise Chet did exactly what one would expect, so I never really got behind him and Quinn.
  • For those two reasons, I was glad that the finale ended focusing on Rachel and Quinn’s fucked up friendship because that felt appropriate for the show.
  • Mary’s suicide was really just a bit too much for me and I’m not sure I buy them being able to continue the show after that. Also the whole switching meds thing was super icky. It definitely feels like something this show would do, but again it was just too much for me.
  • The ending tease for next season involves Jeremy getting Rachel’s mother to basically help him inflict some revenge on Rachel. Maybe Rachel’s mom will be another entertaining presence on the show, but since Jeremy is involved… and you know he’s the absolute worst… I have a hard time getting fully behind this tease.
  • I was somewhat intrigued by the various other possible directions for the show that the proposed spinoffs and stuff like that hinted at. I guess things will be following a similar formula to the first season but with a new suitor? Looking forward to seeing where they take things next season.

4 comments on “The New Shows of Summer: UnReal

  1. I only caught the first and second episodes of this show and thought it was better than I expected . Then I would always forget that it was on and never managed to catch any re-airs. The two episodes I did watch were not what I expected. I think the marketing for this show is a bit hard to understand since it seems to be marketed more as a humorous riff of reality shows rather than the dark feel you mention.
    Great recap and maybe I’ll be able to catch up on it one day, but given the new t.v. season will start soon, I doubt it.

    • Thanks. I don’t feel it is a must watch, but it was pretty entertaining. I’m glad it came on in the summer as I would have probably ignored it in the Fall. So many shows coming back, I will have a hard time keeping up with the things I usually watch as it is.

  2. Surprisingly great show. Shiri Appleby will without a doubt end up on my top tv performances list at the end of the year. Also, completely agree with you about Mary’s suicide and about the finale’s decision to focus on the Rachel-Quinn relationship. I think that’s the heart of the show.

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