Summertime used to be a garbagehole wasteland for TV. Enjoy your reruns, suckers! That’s how every network treated us, the people. And we did enjoy our reruns, I guess, but some of us fantasized about a better way to live. An era of year-round programming, where exciting and special shows could premiere in any season. On any channel, even. Sometimes it seems that world is still far away; crapola reality shows aren’t spiritually better than repeats, and heaven knows not every cable outlet has real game. But sometimes that dream world seems like it’s actually happening, and a great little show emerges from whence you least expect. Like Lifetime’s new scripted drama UnREAL.
Lifetime’s original scripted programming has not been a particularly fertile field: Army Wives had its moments, and I secretly enjoyed a lot of Drop Dead Diva, but neither show was good good. But here comes UnREAL, and suddenly Lifetime — Lifetime! — has one of the most aggressively interesting dramas in recent memory. There’s borderline sociopathy, true human frailty, workplace strife, family drama, romance, social commentary, and a shred of satire.
Shiri Appleby stars as Rachel, a producer on a faux-Bachelor show called Everlasting. She had a notorious meltdown the previous season, but she’s back now — not recovered, exactly, but unable to stay away. See, she’s incredibly good at manipulating the various bachelorettes into saying horrible things, or playing up giant moments, or going against their better nature. And she’ll do whatever it takes, because she knows she can edit all the context away, and the finished product of the season will simply be a patchwork quilt of betrayed weeping and misguided lusty gazes. Particularly since Rachel works for Quinn (Constance Zimmer), who has even less regard for the participants’ emotional well-being or ostensible reputations. She’s brash and nasty, but don’t hate the player, hate Everlasting.
But you can’t quite, because we also get to know the participants, the women trying to “win” and “the Suitor” Adam, a British hotel heir trying to improve his scandal-plagued image. UnREAL plays with what we know are the “types” on The Bachelor (or Top Model or The Apprentice or Top Chef, or a variety of other shows): There’s the perky virgin, the short-haired MILF, the slightly brittle villain. The black women are encouraged to play up stereotypical “angry” behavior. (One scoffs, one goes for it. Guess who gets sent home first.) We see the glimpses of how this will all look when the show — the show within the show, that is — airs, and it’s of course weird and grotesque and familiar. But UnREAL is much more about the behind the scenes, about how the women actually are, about how Rachel actually is, too. For a show that can be very cynical and very biting, there’s a real humanity to the series, too. Look at all these sad, broken people. The view must be very clear from your glass house.
UnREAL’s creators are Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer who made the short film “Sequin Raze” on which the show is based, and the prolific Marti Noxon, probably most famous for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also a longtime producer on Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Mad Men, and Glee. This show has a lot in common with, frankly, a lot of those shows: There’s the snappy dialogue of Buffy, some of the dark humor of Grey’s, the curiosity about artifice we saw often on Mad Men, and it has moments where, like Glee, it walks the line between tribute and parody.
More important than what it has in common with other shows, though, is how much it doesn’t. UnREAL is defiantly its own thing. It’s not a procedural, it’s not primarily a love story, and it’s a lot less sentimental than most workplace dramas. The show is very savvy about its unique pace, tone, and style — not a soap, exactly, but it gets to have soapy moments we know are contrived for Everlasting. It’s (appropriately) not quite a Serious Drama, either, even though in some ways one could view Rachel as an antiheroine. She’s in a bad place — sometimes literally, like when she sleeps in a crew truck at work — but it’s not played for cutesiness, nor is it played for sympathy. She’s just a person who is in crisis and trying to work through it, in all the ways that makes one special but also very unspecial. Appleby’s performance is gruff and terrific, really toying with Rachel’s almost-supernatural ability to get people to trust her, even though she proves time and again that she might use that trust in ways you didn’t expect and don’t like. Is that flirting, or just provoking? Is this commiserating, or scheming? Reverse psychology? Regular psychology? She’s not evil, but she’s no Girl Scout, either.
Although I fear the TV gods might smite me for this, I’ll say there were parts of the show that left me cold. Craig Bierko as Chet, Everlasting’s creator, feels like he belongs on Entourage, not this; a few plot “twists” felt not quite earned; occasionally Quinn’s antics veer into Cruella de Vil madness, not Miranda Priestly genius. I also find the use of camel caps egregious.
That said, I was as taken with this show as I have been with anything in a long time. Appleby’s occasional crumpled expressions of defeat caused me to experience actual emotions, and I felt bereft when I finished each episode. It even made me more sympathetic to the social construct of The Bachelor franchise. If UnREAL’s not careful, we might fall in love.