When it was originally on: 2015-2018
Original network: Lifetime (moved to Hulu for its final season in 2018).
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: No. I had seen all of Season 1 and the first several episodes of Season 2, but I’m not current.
What IMDb says: A behind-the-scenes look at the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program.
Why I picked it: Season 1 of Unreal was pretty amazing. Suspenseful, unpredictable, and surprisingly dark. As I mentioned in my You post, it was one of the first shows that really got me thinking about the relationship between a show and its distribution outlet. Unreal was so good, critics loved it, yet it didn’t seem like there were that many people watching it. I couldn’t help but wonder what this show might’ve been had it been on AMC or Netflix instead of Lifetime. As I was trying to find basic cable entries for The List (which is always the hardest category, especially if you try to find ones that aren’t FX), Unreal seemed like a natural choice. Plus, it’s just an excuse to tell you all how great this show is.
What I liked: This is one of those shows where pretty much all the lead characters are dirtbags, and usually that’s not my cup of tea (cough cough House of Cards cough cough). What makes Unreal stand out from other shows where everyone is a dirtbag is that people have varying degrees of guilt over it, and much of their characterization lies in that guilt or lack thereof. Quinn is able to rationalize the various shitty things she does under the guise of “well the contestants know what they signed on for.” Rachel clearly knows everything she’s doing is sick and twisted and terrible and feels terrible about it. But also, she needs a job, and doesn’t know where else to go. Both the writing and grade-A performances of Constance Zimmer (Quinn) and Shiri Appleby (Rachel) make this show as superb as it is. We see Quinn’s callousness and Rachel’s shame without the show really going out of its way to call attention to it.
The more I think about Rachel, the more fascinating she is to me. She spends most of this first episode doing things that only a manipulative sociopath would be capable of. She has a natural talent for getting people to behave in destructive ways in order to get the drama that Quinn needs for the show. We also get to see other producers try and fail and what Rachel does so effortlessly. At times you wonder if she is a sociopath. And yet. . . I pity her. She feels genuine. The empathy she feels towards the reality show contestants feels genuine. A character with a natural aptitude for villainy trapped in a job that requires said villainy who constantly feels terrible about everything she’s doing can propel many an episode arc.
The pilot also does a great job of teasing Rachel’s epic meltdown from the prior season of Everlasting (it’s basically The Bachelor) without coming it right out and saying it. The references feel natural, no contrived dialog that exists solely to inform the audience. We spend most of the story wondering what exactly happened and tiny hints are dropped throughout the episode: everyone is surprised to see Rachel come back to the show; Rachel mentioning she’s in therapy; Chet mentioning how her meltdown got great ratings. This storyline also does a great job of communicating how essential Rachel is in Quinn’s eyes. Quinn is not the type of character who can just give Rachel a genuine compliment, but seeing her bring Rachel back after such an obviously fireable offense gives us insight into these characters’ codependence.
It’s also amazing to me how this show is able to drag these types of reality shows to hell and back while simultaneously utilizing some of their same appeal. I’m genuinely curious to know which contestants will get eliminated next and who (if anyone) forms a real, loving relationship with Generic White Boy. I’m curious to watch the different personalities clash with each other: the country girl, the single mother, the model who has sex with the suitor on the first night. All the reasons why one might watch The Bachelor are still here, and yet the show still manages to call those shows out for the fake, exploitative cash grabs they are.
What I didn’t like: I don’t give nearly as many shits about Jeremy the ex-boyfriend camera guy and his new fiancé as the show seems to think I should. But that’s a minor thing.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I knew this show was good, but watching the pilot made me remember just HOW good. I should really make it a priority to binge the series in full (as should you!)