After watching the first season of Lifetime’s freshman drama series UnREAL, you may feel at once gratified and disturbed, aroused and disgusted, excited and depressed. And while navigating the tension between all of these opposing forces, you’ll arrive at the conclusion that you just discovered what has become the most unlikely—but unequivocally—best show on TV this summer.
We’re as surprised as you are.
This is a TV series that is about the creation of a fictional Bachelor-like reality TV show. Its title is infuriatingly capitalized. It airs on Lifetime, for God’s sake—a fact that you tend to forget as you become enrapt in the psychological warfare taking place between these characters, but then are brutally reminded of during commercial breaks when ads play for some seventh-circle-of-hell series called Little Women: LA.
Oh right, you remember in those moments. This series really is on Lifetime. On paper, nothing about this show indicates how good it is.
But no show this summer has been as addicting, as complex, or as juicy as UnREAL. No show is as dark and bleakly honest about the worst parts of human nature, but still as permissive of our embracing of those very things. It’s a highbrow take on a lowbrow form of entertainment, but that leans in to the sordidness of reality TV with such enlightened and straightforward care that the pleasure of it comes guilt-free.
The season finale airs Monday night. For the love of Chris Harrison—or, hell, to spite Chris Harrison—you need to watch.
“Give them what they want,” shouts Constance Zimmer, the actress who plays Quinn King, the executive producer of Everlasting, a dating reality show modeled after The Bachelor, in the premiere. “Ponies. Princesses. Love. I don’t know—it’s a bunch of crap anyways.”
From the first seconds of UnREAL the curtain is pulled back on what goes into making a reality TV show: how the drama is conjured, how the contestants are manipulated, how ignorant and also how complicit contestants are about the whole thing.
It’s a brilliant conceit, too. Reality TV was supposed to be the curtain-less medium, a voyeur’s look into the lives of other people, unfiltered. Dating series like The Bachelor, or Everlasting in this case, were supposed to reassure us that fairy tales are real—because happily ever after was happening before our eyes, on reality TV with real people.
UnREAL, then, is as cruel as it is cathartic. It confirms what we’ve long suspected but didn’t really want to acknowledge: there is a curtain. And the people behind it are writing these fairy tales as they go along. Then, it tears down that curtain, revealing that these reality TV puppet masters might actually be the delusional, borderline psychotic, at once relatable and unfathomably dramatic “characters” we’re tuning into these TV shows to see. No manipulation required.
There’s Zimmer’s Quinn, whose jadedness when it comes to the deceitful nature of her job—fooling a nation into thinking that Everlasting is real, and ruining the lives of the contestants along the way—is actually portrayed in a way that’s empowering and almost heroic.
Her battle cries to her team of producers—“Cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, and catfights.” “I need a sound bite before she goes.”—quickly have you cheering along, too, and then reevaluating whether you’ve gone insane for rooting for such behavior.
But moral ambiguity and deals with the devil are marching orders in the business of reality TV, and as audience members we’re also reporting for duty.
How quickly we learn that everyone has an agenda.
The contestants want fame, and are willing to sacrifice dignity for it and even their own common sense; even the smartest ones begin to believe this is true love. The suitor himself has an endgame, and romance is the least of it. And we, the audience, simply want to be entertained, so much so that we’re willing to ignore our own conscience telling us that this isn’t real, or, worse, that people’s lives are being compromised at the expense of our own enjoyment.
And there are the show’s producers, including UnREAL’s multilayered protagonist Rachel Goldberg, played by the superb Shiri Appleby. Like Quinn, Rachel messes with your mind. You can’t shake your instinct that Rachel is a good person, even as she double-crosses, lies to, and manipulates the Everlasting contestants into betraying their feelings in order to do what the show needs in order to be good TV.
She is such a complicated character study, a person who feels abundant guilt over what she’s doing, but also a person who is excellent at her job and takes pride in how good she is at it. It just so happens that when she is firing on all cylinders at her place of work, she is also manipulating people, compromising her morals, and possibly destroying lives.
The sliding scale between her guilt over it all and her resignation to it drives the season’s emotional arc, and the constant vacillation between the two is what keeps the show from becoming too preachy—or, on the other hand, too deranged to enjoy.
“Maybe I’m sick of being a manipulative bitch,” Rachel tells Quinn at one defeated moment. “That’s who we are,” Quinn says back, and no moment this summer TV season is as validating.
These are characters that annoy you, disgust you, and who you might not be able to stomach spending three minutes with in your life, but who you can’t resist adoring as you watch them on TV. All the while, you’re forced to come to terms with the realization that you share much more in common with them than you might like to admit, and, at the very least, understand far more about where they’re coming from than you should.
When was the last time there was this much complexity, this much realness, in a summer TV soap opera?
UnREAL’s greatest asset is an unabashed embrace of the veritable manifesto that drives the reality TV genre it depicts: a lack of pretension. There’s a preciousness and a creative arrogance that’s plaguing what was supposed to be this summer’s best series—Season 2 of True Detective. UnREAL doesn’t come close to falling into that trap.
It’s as juicy as a reality show, as ridiculous as a soap opera, but still as engaging and mature as a prestige cable drama.
More, it holds a mirror up to our own relationship with the reality TV craze that threatens to herald the nadir of culture while exploring its roots as a noble enterprise. We scoff at the drunken debauchery of the Real Housewives and the mindless vapidness of the Kardashians, yet desperately try to convince ourselves that reality TV has value.
Headlines celebrate the most recent season of The Bachelorette as TV’s most feminist show (seriously), while Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show on E! proves there is power in the medium for confronting culture’s prejudices, educating audiences on our differences, and perhaps inspiring tolerance and social progression.
But UnREAL isn’t reality TV. It’s about reality TV. At its heart, the show is a soap opera filled with cheating spouses and love triangles and suicide, with eating disorders, closeted lesbians, drug binges, mental illness, and all the glorious human issues that the genre loves to exploit as catastrophes.
As audiences and cultural critics, we’re not supposed to like or respect a TV series this soapy, or that legitimizes the worst aspects of reality TV—a genre we’re already trained not to respect. But with a countdown clock that cannot tick quickly enough until Monday night’s season finale, it’s time to admit that this is the cleverest summer TV series we’ve been given in years.
Finally, scripted programming stopped being polite and started getting (un)real.