“This is what a feminist looks like” is the ironic slogan on the t-shirt of a stressed-out young producer Rachel Goldberg and possibly the sneaky truth behind the fast-paced new drama she’s on, UnREAL.
Calling attention to the obvious artifice of a TV genre we all know and love, UnREAL, a scripted drama from Marti Noxon (you know, the former Buffy writer and producer!) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, follows the lives of the producers and crew of‘Everlasting, a fake reality dating show much like The Bachelor. The familiar format–the handsome rich bachelor is looking for love and a parade of beautiful women are vying for his attention, while the losers get voted out of the mansion week by week–is a great choice for establishing context. It’s a formula that doesn’t take much explaining and allows the focus to remain on what’s happening behind the scenes, where the real drama is going on.
Despite the fact that it is clearly manufactured reality designed for our guilty pleasure enjoyment, it’s a known fact that audiences eat this stuff up. And now we get to feel a little guiltier about it as we get a glimpse into the kinds of strategic decision-making and positioning that goes into creating this kind of series. The lead producer on Everlasting is Quinn King (Constance Zimmer of House of Cards and The Newsroom), a ball busting, take-no-prisoners kind of boss who doesn’t care who she offends or pisses off. Labelling the contestants one by one, she ruthlessly calls out The Ugly One, The Villain, The Crazy One, and The One That Can’t Be First Out of the Carriage … because she’s black and therefore not “wifey” material. After that last one, she reminds her dumbstruck employees, “it’s not [her] fault that America’s racist.”
While somewhat horrifying, this statement calls attention to the “nature of the beast” argument, that her job as the producer is to get ratings, which inevitably involves putting cultural and emotional sensitivities aside and going for the jugular. It’s an approach that would be a whole lot more offensive if Quinn’s character were a man. As a woman, I actually find her ruthlessness kind of badass. In a line-crossing, terrible reflection of humanity’s vices kind of way.
As her right-hand woman Rachel (Shiri Appleby) arrives on set for the first time, we find out that she is actually returning from a short time away following a dramatic public breakdown during the last Everlasting finale. While this seems like a pretty conclusive departure, we soon discover why Quinn was so keen to have her back on the show’s team, as she quickly reveals her talent for manipulating people into providing juicy content.
While Quinn clearly represents the “eye on the prize, no holds barred” approach, Rachel seems to have a bit more of an internal struggle going on as she tries to balance her desire to succeed at a job she’s good at with her conscience. While convincing a single mother that she has a shot with the bachelor (Quinn has already labelled this woman as the Desperate MILF), she shows enough remorse to make her a sympathetic character, and one we’ll probably be rooting for as the show goes on.
It’s great to see a show led by two female protagonists coming from such different perspectives. Rachel and Quinn represent two different types of women: the powerful career-driven boss and the struggling young professional trying to figure out who she wants to be. From the first episode, it’s clear that both will have to deal with romantic entanglements at some point, but they definitely aren’t defined by their male counterparts and romance is in no way a priority except in the context of matching the bachelor with his potential “wifeys.”
The pilot also introduces a few other important characters: Quinn’s boss and fuck buddy—or is it boyfriend?—Chett, Rachel’s ex-flame and flirtatious cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly), Rachel’s replacement and rival Shia (Aline Elasmar), the bachelor Adam (Freddie Stroma), and a few of the more memorable contestants on Everlasting. Overall, it’s a promising start for a career drama about the entertainment industry and it seems like the show could have a lot of potential for twisty storylines.
Basically, if you’re not easily offended and can put aside your outrage at the shocking things coming out of Quinn’s mouth, I think you will enjoy UnREAL. I know I’m especially interested to see where the two female leads will take it.
UnREAL debuts Monday, June 1 at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT on Lifetime, Showcase and Slice in Canada (it’s just on Lifetime in the States). Following the debut, the show will air Mondays at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT on Lifetime.