Reality TV is the basis for one of the best scripted series to debut on television so far this year — and certainly the best thing to come from Lifetime in a long time.
“UnREAL” pulls back the curtain for a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making the fictional romance show, “Everlasting.”
In a shrewd scheduling move that can’t be coincidental, “UnREAL” premieres on the cable network Monday right after ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”
The show stems from a short film made by former “Bachelor” producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who co-developed it for Lifetime along with Marti Noxon (“Girlfriends Guide to Divorce,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).
Shiri Appleby (“Chicago Fire,” “Girls”) crushes it as antihero Rachel Goldberg, a morally conflicted producer who gets sucked back into game despite having an on-set meltdown during an “Everlasting” season finale.
Rachel has a gift — actually more of a curse — that allows her to sniff out people’s crazy like a pig hunting truffles.
She’s a drama rain-maker, a master manipulator who controls the puppet strings in a mansion full of glammed-up women, all while wearing an old T-shirt emblazoned with the words “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.”
Rachel’s skills often make it hard for her to sleep at night, but they’re highly valued by her ruthless and tactless boss, executive producer Quinn King. King is played by Constance Zimmer (“House of Cards,” “The Newsroom”), who resists the urge to take the character over the top, tempering the villainess with just the right amount of vulnerability.
“That’s why we cast her: for the crazy,” Quinn says about an older, single mom contestant who’s meant to fit the desperate cougar role. “She knew what she was in for — they all do.”
Quinn offers cash bonuses to staffers who can conjure up cat fights, nudity or 911 calls for the sake of “good TV.” In the opening scene, she throws a fit about a producer’s decision to have a beautiful, smart black woman be the first contestant to meet “the suitor.”
That’s because one of the rules is the first contestant is always “wifey” material.
Another rule: Wifey is never black.
“It’s not my fault that America’s racist,” Quinn chides a control room full of ashamed staffers.
Turns out Quinn’s own quest for love with the married, coke-snorting creator of the show (Craig Bierko) is just as messed up as the fantasy she’s selling to viewers.
Rachel has trouble in that department, too. She works alongside her ex-flame, a camera man (Josh Kelly).
The setting of “Everlasting” looks straight out of “The Bachelor” playbook, from the plethora of pillar candles to the limo-like arrival of the Barbie doll contestants who step out of a chariot to meet their soul mate, a British hotel-chain heir played by Freddie Stroma (“Pitch Perfect,” “Harry Potter”).
Similarities to her former workplace notwithstanding, Shapiro told TV critics earlier this year that “UnREAL” is a drama, not a documentary about her days on “The Bachelor.”
“It was a great world to set it in,” Shapiro said about reality TV dating competitions in general. “It’s like I knew how to put up the wallpaper but it’s totally fictional.”
Dating shows are low-hanging fruit when it comes to spoofing (all due respect, “Burning Love”). But “UnREAL” aims much higher than just milking the genre for laughs. It’s an insightful, poignant look at the lies, slut-shaming, racism and collateral damage that so often accompany this type of “guilty-pleasure” TV. (No judgments here; I’ve watched my fair share of “The Bachelor” franchise.) It’s also a compelling examination of the people who make it happen, both on and behind the camera.
“The show is as dramatic and dark as it is satirical, and that’s what I think is most surprising about it, is that you really get the ‘feels,’” Noxon said.
“We put a fatwa on spoofing,” added Shapiro. “We were like, ‘We’re not making fun of something.’ The genre is already so meta at this point that it’s self-referential on its own. That really wasn’t our interest or aim. It’s a character drama, and it just happens to be set in that world.”
And that world happens to be a fascinating place. Say what you will about reality dating shows like “The Bachelor,” but there’s no denying that they open a Pandora’s box full of interesting issues, from gender roles and ethics to why viewers are drawn to bad behavior and idealized notions of romance. “UnREAL” explores all of that, and it does it an entertaining, eye-opening way.
I’ve seen three episodes and I’m eager for more. I just hope the show lasts longer than most reality TV couples. (R.I.P. Chris and Whitney.)
Rating: (4 / 5)
“UnREAL” airs at 9 p.m. Central/10 p.m. Eastern Mondays on Lifetime.