Saturday, August 1, 2015

'UnReal': Looking Backward and Forward at Summer's Smartest Guilty Pleasure [Contributor: Meredith]

Premiering to nearly universal critical acclaim, this summer's hit series UnReal (on Lifetime) is a look into the actual reality, behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque competition franchise. For those who don't know the premise, UnReal is a fictional show that takes place on the set of "Everlasting" - which is basically The Bachelor, right down to the too-good-to-be-true leading man, and the tall, dark, handsome and just a tad smarmy host. The show is characterized as an insider's view of all the crazy, shady, morally ambiguous, and truly shocking goings-on that occur behind the scenes of this type of reality program. Of the two women at the helm of the show, one is a former Bachelor producer, and UnReal is based on her experience working for the franchise. Lifetime marketed it as their very own Breaking Bad, by which they meant it was dark, gritty and disturbing, but highly entertaining and quite possibly groundbreaking for the genre. The network hoped to set a new, more mature and sophisticated tone with this show.

In my humble opinion, they've succeeded. Dynamic, flawed, strong characters? Check. Interesting storylines and relationships amongst the primary cast members? Check. Romance? Check. Tackling difficult issues head-on? Do I need to keep going? (I can. I will.) But first, let's take a quick look back at the first nine episodes of UnReal's freshman season. Warning: though I'll try to keep it vague, for anyone who hasn't watched yet and wants to (and you should), there will be spoilers ahead.

In episode one, we're introduced to the ladies vying for the heart of reformed British bad boy Adam (Freddie Stroma) (who is quite literally a prince.) We also meet our key behind-the-scenes players: executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer), franchise creator Chet (Craig Beirko), producers Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Shia (Aline Elasmar), cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly), and our leading lady Rachel (the adorable and amazing Shiri Appleby.) We learn a little bit about Rachel's breakdown and subsequent legal troubles on the previous season of "Everlasting", as well as a rocky romantic past with Jeremy. We also get a glimpse at the level of manipulation happening not just by the producers towards the contestants, but between the production staff as well. Bottom line: shady stuff is going on, and everyone should be terrified of Quinn.


The next few episodes give us a scandalizing and shocking look at just how much orchestrating and manipulating truly happens behind the scenes. Producers are offered cash bonuses for managing to get juicy soundbites or dramatic confrontations on camera, and they achieve this while playing the role of best friend to the contestants, who are all seriously thirsty for someone to trust. We learn more about the women vying for the affection of British bad boy Adam, who has been ostracized by his upper-crust family because of his scandalous behavior. There's prim and proper Anna, tomboy Faith, bombshell Grace, and older single mother Mary. Each woman has secrets of her own that impact her choices and behavior while on the show, and the producers make it their mission to find and exploit these secrets for ratings.

We also learn that Rachel is the definition of a master manipulator. She is the best of the best, truly, and her talent invites envy and derision from co-producer Shia, who just doesn't seem to have the same level of skill. We also get a peek inside Rachel's own internal struggle: she wants more from her life, she wants to write and produce things that matter, but she's just so good at what she currently does. What's a girl to do? Go with what's safe and known, or strike out in search of something new and meaningful?


Speaking of... while the drama on "Everlasting" is enough to keep you entertained, there's also the behind-the-scenes romantic tensions. Rachel's ex Jeremy is now engaged to Lizzie, but it's clear that both Rachel and her former lover are carrying torches for each other. Add to that the crackling sexual tension and seemingly genuine affection building between Rachel and Adam, a man she insists she is simply "producing," and the viewer is in for a pretty engaging love triangle. (Remember that theme of the known and safe versus the new and exciting?) The push and pull between Quinn and Chet also has viewers on the edge of their seats, watching as the two head honchos try to navigate their professional relationship as well as their romantic one. At the end of each week, two things are abundantly clear: 1) Don't mess with Quinn, and 2) Rachel is the best in the business.

Last week's penultimate episode of UnReal left us with a ton of questions, and in the name of not spoiling the show, I won't elaborate too much on what exactly transpired. Suffice it to say, Rachel has many choices to make, and right now it seems like she may be forced to make some decisions that are not in her best interests.

Somehow, though, week after week, despite some truly egregious behavior, Shiri Appleby has us rooting for Rachel to succeed and to come out on top; to find happiness, and love, and go after what she wants, even if she doesn't yet know what that means. I'm pretty excited for the season finale, because I'm dying to see how they tie up all the storylines and set the table for season two. Will Rachel choose what she knows, both in her career and in her love life? Or will she go for the new, scary option? Will Quinn finally get the upper hand on Chet? Is Adam truly the prince he seems, or does he have something up his sleeve? I want to know all the answers, and I want to know now!

So where does the show go from here? How will it all end this season, and how will that ending impact season two? With the potential for an "Everlasting" spin-off on the table, it would seem like a solid option for the focus of the next season of UnReal. But then there was also Quinn's proposal to Rachel for them to work together on a new project, which would allow the women to produce quality programming that actually matters.

Either direction provides opportunities for interesting dynamics and storylines going into UnReal's sophomore season. Of course, Rachel's choice of suitor will also impact what happens next. Freddie Stroma is a gift and a delight to watch onscreen, and regardless of who Rachel ends up with (if anyone!), I hope to see him back.

Monday's season finale will give us a more complete idea of what we can expect, so check back later this week for my finale recap and review, with a more in-depth look at what's to come.

As I mentioned above, there's more to love about this show than the dramatic and interesting storylines (although those certainly don't hurt.) The characters are all multi-dimensional, real people, with intriguing backstories, dynamic relationships, and character flaws that, if not handled properly, could potentially turn a viewer off. Every single character on the show makes choices that are morally questionable at best, and even if their motives are good, there is no true hero on UnReal. One episode may find the viewer totally #TeamRachel, while the next the pendulum swings and you can't help but hope for Quinn to succeed.

The contestants on "Everlasting" also offer a unique chance for audiences to connect with characters, as once again there is no true hero or villain among the group. Lovable but awkward Faith's not-super-surprising secret that is revealed in episode five just endears her to the viewer even more than before, and even Grace (the likeliest of the bunch to hold the villain title) garners respect when she demands to be treated as a person, and not just a walking set of boobs. Anna initially seems sweet as pie, but a darker, competitive side to her character emerges later in the season. And Mary... well, there's not much I can say about Mary without spoiling some of the most shocking events of the show. But trust me, you'll cry. More than once.

UnReal's other strength lies in its fearlessness when tackling really tough issues. In nine episodes, the show has touched on eating disorders, alcoholism, addiction, suicide, domestic violence, and more. These issues aren't glossed over, or romanticized, or glorified. They are dealt with as real issues in the broader context of the show within the show, and the way that the producers on "Everlasting's" leadership team face these challenges sheds light on the absolute cutthroat nature of the television industry. If you thought you were un-shockable, watch UnReal. And then remember that it's based on one woman's actual experience.

UnReal is smartly written, well-acted, and engaging. It met its goal of putting forth gritty, sophisticated TV while still managing to retain some of the lighter, fun, soapy elements one would expect on a Lifetime show. Don't be put off by the network this show airs on. It is not your mama's Lifetime show. Gone are the days of cheesy Lifetime movies and after school specials. (Well, maybe not gone, but certainly not applicable here.) This show would be a smash hit on any cable network, and as I mentioned earlier critics are giving it rave reviews. If you aren't already watching it... what are you waiting for? Episodes are available on Lifetime OnDemand, and it's the perfect show to binge-watch in a day before the finale airs this week, Monday, 10pm on Lifetime.

If you are watching, hit the comments and let me know your thoughts! What do you think Rachel will choose to do in the finale? Stick with "Everlasting"? Align herself with Quinn? Are you #TeamAdam or #TeamJeremy?

Or maybe you're just Team Rachel and Quinn Kicking Butt and Taking Names. I know I am.


  1. It is a really good show that might be overlooked because of the fact it's on Lifetime and that's a pity. It was really interesting to see Quinn always so in control in her professional life being a mess in her personal one, but I'm glad she's finally at least trying to kick Chett to the curb. I'd love for Rachel to go work with Quinn but for really selfish reasons I want them to work on the spin off because it would be a real shame to lose Adam and the great chemistry and somewhat genuine relationship he and Rachel have developped. We'll see, Monday can't come soon enough!

  2. After binge-watching this like crazy, I now feel like I can comment. So, yay! I agree with you that this is a smart show, and at the same time, such a FUN show. I must have used more GIFS and all caps during my live-tweeting than with any other show ever, because it was batshit insane at times. (Which should scare us, considering the woman who created this actually worked on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette).

    And, as per the question, I'm, without a doubt: Team Rachel and Quinn Kicking Butt and Taking Names.