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