Sick of Masterchef? Over The Block? Can’t bear to think about the wave of reality TV coming our way in the next few weeks? Then UnREAL is for you.
This scripted show (screening on on-demand provider Stan) takes a cynical look behind the scenes of a reality TV show that is absolutely, definitely not The Bachelor. You can be pretty sure there’s more than a modicum of truth to the shenanigans of UnREAL since series co-creator and writer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked on The Bachelor for three seasons in the early 2000s in much the same role as the protagonist of this show. The other co-creator, Marti Noxon, has an impressive resume in television, including Glee, Mad Men and Grey’s Anatomy.
In the pilot episode, we meet Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), an associate producer on a (totally fictional) show called Everlasting. In this show, handsome, wealthy single Brit Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma) gets to meet a bevy of American beauties with a view to possibly marrying one of them – so not like The Bachelor at all. Rachel has some baggage from a spectacular on-set meltdown at the end of the previous season. Her producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) is on her back to deliver on her undoubted skills in handling (read: manipulating) contestants to redeem herself for the damage she caused. Quinn is under pressure from money man Chet Wilson (Craig Bierko), with whom she is having a not-so-secret affair. Rachel soon discovers however that her biggest problem isn’t the contestants (who are basically putty in her hands), her competitive co-APs Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Shia (Aline Elasmar) or even her ex Jeremy (Josh Kelly) who’s a cameraman on the show. No, her biggest problem is Adam, who’s just as manipulative as she is and has his own agenda.
It’d be tempting to rag on UnREAL for choosing an easy target in reality TV, but I think that would be misplaced. After all, the genre is a powerhouse of ratings in both Australia and the US, so even though it might be transparently vapid, it’s still fair game in my book.
The show delves deftly into the machinations between the crew, the contestants and the producers. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that the tone is sometimes a little uneven. Many of the episodes start out as comedy, or at least satire; but as they go along, the mood gets darker and more acerbic. I guess one or the other would probably be a bit much to take in a “one-hour” format show (the episodes actually run around 42 minutes since there are no ads) so the blending of the two makes sense – I’m just not so sure they get the balance exactly right. There are elements of soap thrown in for good measure too, but these tend to be downplayed much of the time.
Having said that, there are some excellent moments. The first time we see Rachel, for example, she’s lying on the floor of a limo with a group of the contestants wearing a T-shirt that reads “This is what a feminist looks like”. Episode 4 ends with as shocking a denouement as you’re likely to see on television this year. Just on that note, this is not a family show by any means, even if your kids watch The Bachelor.
Shiri Appleby (Girls) does a fine job as the put-upon Rachel, who visibly rises as the series progresses. She’s matched by Constance Zimmer (House of Cards) as the hard-bitten Quinn. You get the feeling these two are actually the same character, just 15 years apart. As the “suitor” of the show, Freddie Stroma (the Harry Potter films) is excellent, even if he does things here his character would never have done at Hogwarts. Craig Bierko is oddly amiable as the somewhat disheveled Chet, a guy for whom things always seem to work out.
In the end, UnREAL is far more compelling than any reality TV show. Its journey to the dark side of the fake smiles and glitzy gowns of the genre isn’t exactly new, but it’s done with such aplomb here you just can’t turn away.
Channel: Stan (on-demand)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television