July 29th, 2015

There’s programs you hate and at the same time love to watch – the famous hatewatch. When I was still going to school and during the first years of university I loved watching reality series (chuck the past tense: I still do. I just act out on my fondness less frequently). That was when Ozzy and the Osbournes took over MTV and when the first season of Big Brother was aired and the whole thing still felt awkwardly real and immediate (in Germany nonetheless – The Real World had already been on air for forever in the States, but we were late to the party). Promptly dating formats like The Bachelor, The Surreal Love 3, Flavor of Love, I love New York and Rock of Love showed up on TV, just to name a couple.

Off topic: I just googled Brigitte Nielsen and realised she’s only 52 years old.

Back to my guilty pleasure: Lots of American shows came to Germany and the Real Housewives, Paris and Nicole and the Kardashians dominated the screens, and still continue to do so. The first wave of these shows was my late night snack and theultimate guilty pleasure – we’d make popcorn and watch them on my roomie’s couch. My love for the shows has somewhat wavered, but I’m still fascinated.

So to say I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for Lifetime’s summer drama UnREAL is an understatement. If you want to enjoy a clever and witty show about a reality series in the style of The Bachelor, but don’t want to feel like a braindead zombie while watching it, then this is the show for you.

The setup

UnREAL is set within a dating show format like The Bachelor, named „Everlasting“. The whole series is built around protagonist Rachel, a disillusioned reality tv producer, whom we follow behind the scenes of the whole apparatus that is Everlasting. For everyone who still believes that dating shows – or any reality series for that matter – are the image of reality, UnREAL itself will be a revelation.

The struggle of being real

Still the show gives us more. It depicts the constant struggle of trying to be real in many layers: The endeavour of being a woman or of being the woman the audience wants to see (the same goes to say for the main man, Prince Charming himself). The pain of making the contestants do things for the sake of drama and tension, which is the task the producers have to fulfil in order to guarantee high ratings to continue shooting season after season. It requires them to reduce actual fully formed persons into clichés, the audience can quickly digest and root for (or loathe). This typecasting affects the producers in different ways – it’s intriguing and bitter to see what the producers will do for the sake of their goal.

The inherent cynicism of UnREAL reflects the want and hunger for drama and tension and points out its deceit. Our heroine Rachel is part of the whole apparatus, but although she does terrible, horrible things, the viewer roots for her. Because she struggles and tries to at least make the most of the broken system she’s working in and keep her bosses, the actual executive producers, from doing worse things. But the appetite for spectacle we all know from television and society demands high stakes – which are certainly tackled in UnREAL and Everlasting.

Shiri Appleby makes for a marvellous Rachel. Right off the bat we are thrown into her conflict with the show itself. Something upsetting has happened last season on the show. She had to leave, but now she’s back. Her boss Quinn (fabulous Constance Zimmer) believes in her abilities as a ‘closer’ – the one who can make people do things and deliver the drama and action the format needs, to stay relevant and in the good graces of the audience. Quinn brings Rachel back on set, where the first season of UnREAL kicks off.

But UnREAL isn’t all drama and no fun. As I said before, it’s still a show about a dating reality show, so we get to see lots of dates, romantically candle-lit rooms, horseback-riding, vineyards and sexy pool scenes. And we get to see people having fun at being flirty and enjoying falling in love. You’ll see.

The Bachelor and UnREAL

When I read up on UnREAL, I stumbled across an interview with the real Bachelor’s host Chris Harrison. He states: „Really, the main difference that I’ve seen is that people watch ‘The Bachelor,’” Harrison told Variety when asked what he thinks about “UnReal” at “The Bachelorette: Men Tell All” taping earlier this month. “It’s complete fiction. As much as they would love to jump on our coattails — they were begging for us to talk about it and for people to write about it — at the end of the day, no one is watching. I mean, absolutely nobody is watching that show. Why? It is terrible. It is really terrible.” It’s interesting to see him trying to trash a show that deconstructs the myth surrounding reality dating shows. UnREAL just got renewed for a second season, so at least his argument regarding people not watching cannot be entirely true. And thinking about all the successful couples shows like the Bachelor has brought into the world, I’m sure that everything that we see is the truth and nothing is scripted at all. Irony aside, he’s the first one of a real dating format to talk about UnREAL. Everyone else involved has stayed mum, which seems fairly reasonable right now. I’ve never seen the American version of the Bachelor and we don’t have a real host, just a voice-over in Germany. Harrison might’ve been hurt or appalled by what he’s seen, especially regarding Everlasting’s host. Either way, so far he’s been the only one to acknowledge the show’s existence. I wonder why.

Sequin Raze – where it all began

Another interesting tidbit is by whom UnREAL was created. It was created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. Shapiro had previously worked on The Bachelor. Ha, shocker! The whole concept of UnREAL is based on her experiences working a job she didn’t want to work at, but had to, due to her contract with a reality TV production company.
„I intended to make important feminist films, that’s what I was coming here to do, and then I ended up working on The Bachelor. I had some background in documentary filmmaking so I had an in with this reality TV production company, and they hooked me up with a job on one of their shows. I just filled out my paperwork and I didn’t really think about it, but it turned out I had signed what kept me an indentured servant for many years.“

Eventually she left her job, but a lot of her experiences is reflected in the heroine Rachel. The show got picked up after she made the successful short film „Sequin Raze“ which showed at SXSW, and basically is the short version of UnREAL.

In a nutshell – it’s UnREAL

For the real-time viewers: there’s one episode left until this season of UnREAL is coming to an end. For the others: I recommend watching UnREAL, if you enjoy peeking behind the curtains and seeing the real makings of reality TV show (in a surely exaggerated, but never missing-the-point-way). It’s no hatewatch like regular reality programs, because there’s more to it than just manipulation and the illusion of eternal love. There’s questions of feminism, social critique, approaches on consumerism and thoughts on human behaviour and how far one is willing to go for ratings and “good” storytelling. Oh, and some sex.

update: I just read an interview on Vulture with Prince Charming, Freddie Stroma, and had to pick out this little quote:
What do you think UnREAL gets right about reality TV?
They do everything right, really. They pull back the curtain and they show the truth. I think it’s fun that the main characters aren’t necessarily the contestants. They are the people doing the manipulation.”

Trailer for Sequin Raze