Fourth-episode verdict: UnREAL (US: Lifetime)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Lifetime
In the UK: It’ll be on Lifetime or Living, you know it

As the show’s weak ratings in the US bare out, it’s hard to know what to make of UnREAL, a ‘comedy’ drama set behind the scenes of fake reality dating show ‘Everlasting’ that looks at all the manipulations and exploitation that go on in the name of entertainment and making money. For Lifetime, it’s not only a touchy subject, given how much of its content is reality TV, but it’s atypically dark, with a lack of any real heroes or heroines and themes of everything from racism and feminist analyst of stereotypes through to anorexia, drug-taking, alcoholism and rape.

As I mentioned in my review of the first episode, the show’s stronger when dealing with analyses of how reality TV works, weaker when dealing with relationships behind the camera, which mirror the ones in front. However, over time, the series does seem to have slowly lost interest in the reality TV contestants themselves, being more interested in the people behind the cameras.

This is perhaps an unwise move for UnREAL with Shiri Appleby’s reluctant enabler distinctly implausible, although there is a slightly ambiguous but successful attempt in the third episode involving her psychiatrist mother to flesh her character’s motivations out and suggest she has a personality disorder.

Indeed, most of the main characters have been fleshed out, although are still somewhat implausible. Surprisingly, English reality show star Adam isn’t the least plausible, but references to PG Tips to one side, the show’s attempts to do Englishness crunch like it’s trying to go from first to third gear without using the clutch. For example, having his Abercrombie-and-Fitch clad English friend ask “Who watches American TV?” doesn’t really suggest producers that know the UK TV market very well.

The fourth episode improves the show somewhat as it takes us into some very edgy, unusual territory, away from some of the more soapier plots although not abandoning them. If the show hadn’t lost virtually all Lifetime’s normal audience, I imagine the last of them had left by the end.

Overall, UnREAL is something of a slow but ultimately enjoyable burn, which presumably is why Lifetime’s just shoved the first four episodes onto its web site – that and the hope that the ratings might pick up through good word of mouth as a result. Despite the show’s subject matter, it’s a lot smarter than you’d think, although practically everyone in the cast has been miscast. But you’ll have to enjoy a both frothy and darker side to life – and reality TV – to really love UnREAL

Barrometer rating: 2.5
Rob’s prediction: Dead after one season

  • benjitek

    I'm jaded when it comes to reality TV — my sister was part of one, where the recipients of a 'surprise' home renovation were supposedly out of town when it took place.

    I was visiting my sister the final day of filming, and she invited me to tag along. An eye-opening experience. Not only was the family not out of town while the home renovation took place, I overheard the husband & wife complaining that some of the furnishing weren't of the quality they were promised. When the contractor who supposedly planned and implemented the work showed up for his part of the filming, he was briefed on the project, told what had been done. He wasn't involved in the planning or implementation.

    When it came time for the 'reveal' segment filming, they did multiple takes per room, with the producer encouraging things like 'kids, open your mouths and raise your eyebrows — Sally, open your mouth and say 'oh my god' and then cover your mouth with your left hand. The producer also asked the wife if she could cry-at-will, to which she replied, “If I could, do you think I'd tell you in front of my husband”…

    There's no such thing as reality-tv 😉

  • Ian Mond

    The wife and I are really enjoying it. I mean it's clearly trash TV, and yet I can't help but think that the show's take on reality TV is a reasonable reflection of the truth.

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  • Sounds awful. Reality TV producers suck

  • I think it's a reasonable reflection of truth on the reality TV side, but the behind-the-scenes stuff slightly undermines the 'truthiness' of all that by being so melodramatic and so untruthy.

  • Ian Mond

    Yeah, but it's over the top melodrama that will probably annoy me in a few weeks but at the moment I'm enjoying. And it's got Craig Bierko basically playing himself, which is fun.

  • The only thing I really know him from is the US Red Dwarf pilot. What have you seen him in?

  • Ian Mond

    He was in Cinderella Man and a bunch of other stuff. But mostly I've heard a couple of interviews with him and Gilbert Gottfried and on the Amazing Colossal Podcast and going by those interviews he's clearly chanelling himself in Unreal.

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