When our children’s children undoubtably take a look back at the shows we consumed circa 2015, they’ll see UnREAL, a new television show premiering on Lifetime Monday night—perfectly timed, you’ll see, to air right after The Bachelor finishes—as a show that couldn’t have been made at any other point in television history, but one that feels like necessary viewing now.
UnREAL stars Shiri Appleby as Rachel, a television producer for a show that is essentially The Bachelor, though in this world, it’s called Everlasting. It picks up right at the beginning of the first night (you can watch the beginning below), when the contestants are taking their limos up to the house to meet their potential dream man. But this isn’t the beginning of everything for Rachel, or for her coworkers: Rachel has a complicated history working on Everlasting, and as the episodes unfold, we watch her grapple with her past and with the moral ambiguities of her job. It’s a job she’s very good at, but one that she’s not always happy she’s good at, as it requires her to manipulate people solely for the sake of good television ratings.
The world of Everlasting was created by Marti Noxon, a veteran of shows like Mad Men, Glee, Grey’s Anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who yes, once worked on The Bachelor. The show is based off Shapiro’s well-received short film Sequin Raze, which was also about a woman working on a Bachelor-esque reality television show. According to Noxon, Lifetime brought UnREAL to her attention, and though she wasn’t sure about doing a show for the network at first (which she notes is trying to “redefine” itself), Sequin Raze “was undeniable for me on so many levels as a starting point for a series, especially as a woman who has a lot of opinions about stuff like this.”
Noxon’s also working on another show that’s pushing the boundaries of what its network is known for: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce on Bravo, which has typically been known for its reality programming. Lifetime’s got an obvious history in creating soapy, campy content (stuff that it isn’t entirely shying away from), but there’s something in the television waters that’s creating a space for Noxon, Shapiro and others to make the kinds of programs that push what television can be.
“It’s interesting because in both the shows I’m doing right now, so much of the content is about sexual politics and kind of overly feminist themes and it just seems like there’s much more of an appetite for that than there was even four or five years ago, where you can say ‘I’m going to make a show about women who are pretty bossed up, in all facets, good and bad,” Noxon says. “I think I’m doing some work I couldn’t have done on television five years.”
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What you’ll get from UnREAL is something that, like with Mad Men, pushes the boundaries of what the network it’s on is typically known for. “We were trying to make an FX show that just happens to be on Lifetime,” Noxon says.
They’ve succeeded: UnREAL is a true drama, or a dramedy, or perhaps it deserves a new genre characterization for the way it’s seamlessly created a television show that responds to its era while still creating classically compelling storylines. If you know anything at all about the creation of reality television, none of what the show reveals will be a shock: footage is edited to make contestants look like they did things for entirely different motivations than they did, producers put words in the mouths of contestants, they quickly pigeonhole them into types like villain or MILF, and the crew develops very close relationships with the cast. While the real Bachelor shies away from discussing its tricky history with race, UnREAL tackles it upfront, with characters frankly commenting on how long black cast members will stick around (the answer: only two have ever made it to the final four on 13 seasons Everlastng).
“Sluts. Get. Cut. Right?” Quinn, Everlasting’s hardass producer played by Constance Zimmer yells at her staff. “Nobody wants to take them home to their mommy.” Producers are assigned contestants and given bonuses when things work out for them: “nudity, 911 calls, catfights.”
“Grace, you’re one of my girls,” our protagonist Rachel is seen explaining to a contestant during one episode. “You win this thing, it’s a win for me too.”
The sordid parts of the reality television world explored in UnREAL will be the draw for Bachelor fans, but it’s the rest of the show that will keep people around who aren’t into those types of TV shows. “The reality show stuff … really came around almost as set dressing,” Shapiro explains; because of her time in that particular part of the entertainment industry, she “knew how to hang the wallpaper, I knew the basic rules of the world.”
Essentially, it was just another workplace where she could explore the usual “moral quandaries” people have at lots of different jobs, albeit with more drama and insanity. “What we basically came to was a really rich way to set a show, because it’s a bunch of people trapped in a place looking for love and they can’t leave,” Shapiro says. Watching UnREAL, you realize very quickly that those people also include the crew, whose lives are sometimes even more interesting than the lives of the people they’re controlling to make good television. But women are at the heart of the show, fully fleshed out characters, down to the show contestants you hear little about but still get the sense have whole back stories under their well-maintained blowouts.
“For us, our giant goal has been to turn paper dolls into 3D women,” Shapiro says. “The world is absurd and broad and crazy and so our performances have to be really really grounded.”
It’s still a well-rounded cast, full of plenty of interesting male characters, but Shapiro and Noxon are quick to point out that their show “Passed it, smashed it, murdered it”—the “it” in this instance being the infamous Bechdel Test.
“Our women talk about everything, from their careers, to their life, to their morals, to their goals, to their families,” Shapiro says. Some of that is largely due to the source material: dating shows like the Bachelor are, in Noxon’s words, “not relationship shows about boys and girls: these are relationships about girls and girls. “
No matter who you are and what your reasons for watching dating reality television shows, if you’re a moderately self-aware human, your feelings are likely mixed about consuming them. Shapiro and Noxon love that aspect of watching the shows, and UnREAL takes these questions further: if you’re not just consuming the content, but creating it, what kind of person are you? Are you good or bad? Are you neither?
“One of the reasons I love the attraction to The Bachelor or The Bachelorette or, you know, any of these dating reality shows is that they almost all have kind of archaic idea of what relationships are and how love is formed,” Noxon explains, citing the audience reaction to Mad Men’s Don Draper as a similar embrace of staid gender relations. “It’s so different from the way we actually live now, it feels like it’s kind of a longing for some kind of norm, some kind of old fashioned idea of what men and women are supposed to be doing, even though we know it’s fraudulent.”
That said, “These are these tropes that are pretty hostile to women. And yet, we all kind of dig in. What’s that about? Why do we get pleasure from watching someone get ritually humiliated?”
Ultimately, UnREAL’s success lies in the themes it explores that aren’t specific to the reality television world. “I think everybody in the entertainment business has been like, at one time or another, is what I’m doing hurtful to people?” Noxon says. “And then there’s always the rationale, ‘If I don’t do it, other people will. At least I care. At least I’m wearing a t-shirt that says I’m a feminist,’” referencing the visual gutpunch at the beginning of the show when Rachel is seen in a limo with the contestants wearing a shirt that says “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.”
“I feel like Rachel is at the point in her life when she’s deciding what she’s going to be,” Shapiro says, explaining that they consider the end of The Devil Wear’s Prada, when Anne Hathaway’s character dramatically quits the job she hates to go become a “real” journalist, “such bullshit.”
“Being a self-supported adult is a complicated moral situation sometimes,” she went on to explain. That’s the most real.
UnREAL airs Monday night at 10 pm ET on Lifetime
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Images via Lifetime.