Review: UnREAL 1×1 (US: Lifetime)


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

It hopefully won’t have escaped the attention of regular readers of this ‘ere blog that I haven’t covered reality TV shows since its very early days, back when Big Brother was still a novelty. I just ain’t got the time… and I don’t watch it any more.

It has, however, escaped the attention of lots of PRs, who despite claiming to be ‘huge fans’ of TMINE, still want to know if I’ll cover reality show x, game show y or reality game show z.

Invariably, I tell them that I only cover ‘scripted comedy and drama’, but perhaps I should consider a different response. After all, look over the credits of even something like American’s Next Top Model and you’ll discover a host of writing credits; there’s also a genre known as ‘constructed reality’ that encompasses shows such as The Only Way is Essex in which although the responses of the participants are genuine – or as genuine as they can be on a TV show – the situations in which they’re involved are set up by the production teams.

Oftentimes, it can be hard to tell apart the true reality show from the constructed reality show and Lifetime’s new comedy-drama UnREAL hinges on just such a problem – the nature of truth and reality in supposed reality shows, as well as the symbiotic relationship between those performing for the cameras and the need of reality TV producers for them to perform in order that they can produce ‘interesting’ television that fits comfortable, stereotypical conventions.

Shiri Appleby (Roswell, Life Unexpected) is Rachel, a freelance field producer for a very Bachelor-like reality show called Everlasting. After a breakdown on camera the previous season that ended up with her becoming indebted to the amoral and immoral producer of the show Constance Zimmer (Love Bites, House of Cards), she’s forced to return to the job she hates – manipulating potential and current contestants into doing what Zimmer needs them to do and fitting into their pre-determined roles, all while she pretends to be their friend.

That includes dealing with the supposedly gentlemanly but actually womanising English heir to a hotel chain (Harry Potter’s Freddie Stroma) who’s really using the show to rehabilitate his public profile; Breeda Wool (Betas), a shy Christian woman and virgin who’s intended to be the show’s ‘joke’; Ashley Scott (Birds of Prey, Jericho), the ‘desperate MILF’ who’s going to be dumped by episode three; Arielle Kebbel (90210), the ‘bitch’ who’s the intended villain of the show; and Christie Lang (Arrow), the talented violinist and scholar who’s unfortunately too black to win.

Except Appleby is the kind of woman who goes around wearing a T-shirt saying ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ and faced with pumping out stereotypes that are demeaning to women and betraying her sisters, she decides to do all she can to rewrite the show’s narrative – all while trying to avoid being sent to prison if Zimmer finds out what she’s up to.

About UnREAL
Lifetime’s highly-anticipated scripted series “UnREAL” (#UnREALTV), starring Shiri Appleby (“Girls“) and Constance Zimmer (“House of Cards,” “Entourage“), will premiere Monday, June 1, at 10pm ET/PT. This provocative drama gives a fictitious behind-the-scenes glimpse into the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program.

Set against the backdrop of the hit dating competition show “Everlasting,” “UnREAL” is led by flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate her relationships with, and among, the contestants to get the vital dramatic and outrageous footage that the program’s dispassionate executive producer, Quinn King (Zimmer), demands. What ensues is an eye-opening look at what happens in the outrageous world of unscripted television, where being a contestant can be vicious and being a producer a whole other reality.

“UnREAL” also stars Craig Bierko (“Damages“) as Everlasting’s eccentric creator, Chet; and Freddie Stroma (“Pitch Perfect“) as the dating show’s handsome and intelligent suitor, Adam Cromwell. Josh Kelly (“One Life to Live“) plays Jeremy, a cameraman who is Rachel’s ex-boyfriend, while Siobhan Williams (“Black Box“) is Lizzie, Jeremy’s current fiancée and on-set makeup artist. Everlasting’s contestants include Grace, portrayed by Nathalie Kelley (“The Fast and the Furious“), who immediately wins Adam’s heart; Anna, played by Johanna Braddy (“Shameless“), who is classy and shrewd, with her eye on the prize; Faith, a sensitive and vulnerable tomboy from the South portrayed by Breeda Wool (“Betas“); and Mary, played by Ashley Scott (“Jericho“), a gorgeous single mom who has been unlucky in love. Arielle Kebbel (“The Vampire Diaries“) will guest star as Britney, a contestant who has no filter and isn’t on Everlasting to make any friends.

Is it any good?
Well, compared to Lifetime’s normal drama output – shudder if you remember The Lottery – it’s Dostoevsky. Not quite Year of the Sex Olympics in the scheme of things, but certainly a show willing to bend a few rules and even bite the hand that feeds it, given that Lifetime is the home of Bring It!, Child Genius, Dance Moms, Hoarders, Little Women: LA, Little Women: NY, Little Women: Terra’s Little Family and Preach. Although I guess taking potshots at other networks’ reality shows is less daring – bad luck ABC.

The programme is effectively split half and half between the antics of those in front of the camera and of those behind the camera. Ironically, the two sides mirror each other, but perhaps not in the way UnREAL’s producers intended, since while the show goes to great lengths to show that every thinly drawn reality TV contestant is genuinely a real person with real motivations and probably a tragic background, too, it treads the exact opposite path with the production team, creating thinly drawn pastiches of people.

If Zimmer could grow a moustache, she would twirl it; if Appleby could simply be allowed to wear a hat bearing a sign saying ‘I’m torn by the morality of this situation but ultimately I’m a hypocrite and I’m prepared to do evil if I have to’, she’d be saved from a good deal of facial contortions and wounded puppy dog expressions; if her rivalry with mean girl producer Aline Elasmar were any worse written, she’d be having a hair-pulling contest in a fountain while a gang of BAME youths chant ‘you go girlfriend’ at her.

It’s almost as if the real-life producers and writers can’t handle the idea of how cynical their counterparts must be – or, worse, how cynical they might be – and have decided to insulate themselves in ironic detachment.

Or maybe, just maybe, they’re arguing that those who need to feed on real lives to sustain their own lives are less real in some way.

So this is clever in the same way as Moving Wallpaper was in terms of exploring conventions and what reality TV is like, particularly for women, while simultaneously occasionally moving – as might be expected from the always-smart Marti Noxon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Point Pleasant). The show equally smartly does exactly what it’s own show-within-a-show does in creating heroines and villains to cheer and boo at, possible love matches and rivalries for us to cheer for, secrets that will be exposed and redemptions to be sought.

Appleby’s still a tad too annoying to be the heroine and a bit too goody-goody to be a convincing manipulator of people, Zimmer’s enjoying herself too much and Stroma’s punchably posh. But generally, there are some decent lines and some decent characters at least in the supporting cast and particularly among the show’s ‘contestants’. It’s also quite fun to see what both Ashley Judd and Craig Bierko are doing these days.

Ultimately, whether you watch this or not is probably down to how much you love reality TV, particularly The Bachelor. If you can’t stand it, then chances are you’re not going to care for this much either, although maybe you fancy seeing it taken down a peg or two. If you like it but ironically, then you’ll probably love this. If you love it, then you’ll probably hate this, as it’s mocking your beloved.

So with maths and some Venn diagrams, I think we’ve proven that despite this being quite good, chances are you’re not going to watch this so much as admire (or hate) what it’s doing. But it’s a good effort, even if it’s perhaps going to have a fruitless search for an audience.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.