What UnREAL Gets (and Doesn’t Get) About Life As a Reality-TV Producer

Constance Zimmer as Everlasting's showrunner, Quinn. Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime

Seth Grossman has produced dozens of reality shows for MTV, VH1, National Geographic, and Fox, on subjects ranging from drug addiction to adult virgins in love. Between reality gigs, he writes and directs feature films and co-wrote the classical music drama A Late Quartet, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman.

On every reality show I’ve ever worked, a point comes when the producers face one another in exasperated bafflement over some production nightmare — a paranoid cast member with a vendetta against a PA, a drunk executive steering the show off the rails — and say, “This should be the show.” 

And so Lifetime’s new scripted drama UnREAL, a look behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality show (called Everlasting), was inevitable. Through reality-TV field producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a T-shirt feminist whose legal fees have forced her into indentured servitude on Everlasting, the show explores the moral hazards that reality producers face. UnREAL, which premiered Monday night, takes it as a given that Everlasting is a pile of cultural trans-fat whose ideological premise — women competing for the affections of a rich, handsome asshole — runs counter to everything that Rachel believes in. Last season on Everlasting, Rachel had a drunken nervous breakdown on set — thus the legal fees — and this season plays like a Sisyphean rediscovery of all the corruption inherent in her work.

For UnREAL’s creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a reality-TV veteran who made it out with a story to tell, the show serves as both exposé and confessional. It’s a workplace drama whose protagonist is a vegetarian in the slaughterhouse, but she happens to be really good at killing cows. UnREAL offers many of the same pleasures that audiences get from watching House MD offer a diagnosis or McNulty solve a crime: the satisfaction of seeing a job well done.

What I find most gratifying about UnREAL is its examination of the unique craft of reality field production, a craft that combines the grifter’s ability to rapidly read a mark and gain trust with the director’s understanding of what constitutes good storytelling.

Reality producers know that the best moments on television are moments of authenticity, but it’s not easy to draw authenticity from non-actors in the awkward and artificial conditions of a reality set. We aren’t ourselves when we’re surrounded by cameras and asked to expose our deepest feelings. But there are tricks and shortcuts to get there; I worked on a show once whose producers used the term kicking the bouquet to refer to the quick creation of on-camera drama. (The term derives from a bridal show whose wedding prep was going a little too smoothly, so a producer kicked the bridal bouquet under the bed to create an easily resolved scene of panic.) On UnREAL, the producers keep the cast drunk to lower inhibitions and inflame drama. That works up to a point, but drunk cast members can be hard to produce. The hard work of reality production is making the cast feel comfortable enough to be unself-consciously themselves. And that means getting to know them and sympathizing with them, even when you’re serving a different agenda than they are.

Of course, when all else fails, producers can create the stories they want in post-. UnREAL’s marrying of field- and postproduction is a necessary fiction, but most unscripted shows have a dedicated postproduction team off-set that receives footage from the field and edits it based on outlines written before the camera rolled. In scrubbing through hours and hours of footage, story producers and editors regularly do take material out of context. But this is usually less scandalous than UnREAL’s character assassinations, more along the lines of, “Has anyone seen a shot of this guy on the phone? We need to show that he’s making a phone call.” A savvy field producer will note interesting on-set moments, regardless of context, and let the post- team know how they might fit into the story they’re telling.

Rachel clearly has a gift for the work, and when she sits on set beside her showrunner Quinn (a damaged, nuanced Constance Zimmer) watching a catfight she instigated between two contestants, knowing that she’s creating teaser material that will haul millions of eyeballs through Toyotathons and antidepressant commercials to watch the finale, she knows she’s home.

Rachel’s pain, and the pain of every reality producer with a glint of conscience working on a show she detests, is that she’s deploying her considerable talents to tell stories that are beneath her. She’s Beethoven writing jingles because there’s no market for symphonies on TV. But where the show veers from my experience is in the great pains it takes to establish that Rachel has no choice but to work on Everlasting. I can imagine the network’s note about Rachel’s likability went something like, “She can’t possibly enjoy the work! Make it so she has no choice.” So Quinn offers cash bounties to producers who complete odious tasks — like creating a villain from contestant raw material — and Rachel, as it is, is extremely cash-strapped.

I understand the need for this narrative device, but I’ve never heard of such production bounties; the truth is they’re not necessary. The middle ranks of reality-TV producers are rife with idealists and artists whose integrity gets quickly crushed beneath New York and L.A. rents, film-school debt, and the depressing state of the TV marketplace. Most producers are freelancers without much in the way of benefits or career stability. We work crazy hours and sleep in grip trucks to prove ourselves, to make sure we’ll get hired again by executives who tend to truly believe in the significance of their shows. We resolve our cognitive dissonance by becoming true believers ourselves, or by writing poetry on the side, and we drink a lot. But mostly, we find solace in crew camaraderie.

The crew on UnREAL is a backstabbing bunch, competing for promotions and desperate to avoid the casual termination that seems to be an ever-present threat. I don’t know if that’s how it is on blue-chip network shows like The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, or Survivor, but on the shows I’ve worked, the crew weather long hours, difficult work, and moral hazards through gallows humor and esprit de corps. What UnREAL misses, by virtue of being a drama, is the tremendous fun that reality production can be. Reality producers aren’t curing cancer or fighting poverty: We’re making TV shows, often really dumb TV shows, but we can laugh about it because we get to travel the world, meet fascinating people, and eat the leftovers of the world’s most talented chefs while we do it. Sometimes we actually befriend the cast members and stay in touch long after the show has wrapped. It’s not such a terrible gig. And if we can hold onto our ideals and prevent our critical faculties from eroding as we rise through the ranks, one day, we hope, we’ll be able to create our own shows. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro did.