UnREAL s1 ep 1

“You get cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights!”

Rachel is a producer on “Everlasting,” a reality TV dating show; basically The Bachelor with a little I Wanna Mary Harry mixed in, just for posh English accent’s sake. Rachel is also just back at work, after an on-set meltdown, resulting in criminal charges, a civil suit and mandated therapy, all apparently caused by her realising that “Everlasting” is “Satan’s asshole.” And Rachel might well be right: Lifetime’s new drama UnReal is breathtakingly (in the sense that I actually gasped several times during this first episode) cynical about the nuts and bolts of a particular type of reality TV production, portraying a staggeringly cruel process of systemic, almost sociopathic manipulation, where the producers’ ultimate aim is the exploitation of (mostly female) contestants’ vulnerabilities and insecurities to produce “good tv.”

I say “almost sociopathic” because it’s clear that, unlike her unapologetically, brazenly callous boss Quinn, Rachel not only hates what she’s doing to these women but also hates herself for doing it. Unfortunately, for Rachel, however, she seems to have a preternatural talent for it and the show relies on that and on her, with several, jaw-dropping scenes in this season-opener illustrating exactly why Quinn is so desperate to keep her on staff to wrangle the contestants despite what happened in the past. Can Rachel keep her job, her self-respect and her sanity all at the same time?

This razor-sharp, blackly comic pilot episode suggests not. Our heroine is almost the archetypal “good” vampire of the piece – she’s haunted by what she does, but addicted to it at the same time. Shiri Appleby gives a wonderfully well-realised, nuanced performance as Rachel; on one view, the only decent human being on the staff, on another, an even worse person than Quinn for ignoring her conscience as opposed to just not having one. Constance Zimmer is wildly, reprehensibly entertaining as the incorrigible Quinn, meanwhile, and the script itself is nothing short of brilliant – a darkly funny, brutal tour-de-force lacerating the moral bankruptcy of certain aspects of the entertainment industry (not all of it, before anyone decides to sue me), with its exploitation of vulnerabilities and stereotypes for public delectation. As someone who isn’t above watching reality TV herself – I can’t stomach the dating shows, but it’s not as if the so-called singing competitions I tend to watch are cruelty-free – maybe I’ve no business casting stones, but I said UnREAL is breathtakingly cynical, not because I can’t believe anything like this ever happens, more because I can easily believe it does. It’s a surprisingly provocative stance for a Lifetime (of all things) show to take, given the channel’s usual fare includes a fair amount of reality TV too, but the implicit challenge to a potentially complicit audience (and again, I’m not excusing myself from that number) is a welcome, bracing one, especially when it comes wrapped up in a first episode as terrific as this one. I can’t wait to see where UnREAL goes from here.

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