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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

TV Rewind | Unreal: The dark underbelly of reality television

Unreal told the behind-the-scenes story of creators and producers who would happily manipulate people to produce an hour of saucy television that would fetch them some good ratings.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi | Updated: October 25, 2020 9:06:30 am
UnrealUnreal was one of those shows which made you feel dirty for participating in the world of reality TV, even if just as the audience.

If you have ever seen even a single episode of any reality show, you know that the lifeblood of any such show is controversy and drama but have you ever wondered who are the puppeteers running the show? That question gets answered by Unreal.

I stumbled upon the first season on Unreal on a late-night internet dive and was left fascinated by the devastatingly dark world that this show created. Using the backdrop of a reality show (like The Bachelor), this show told the behind-the-scenes story of creators and producers who would happily manipulate people to produce an hour of saucy television that would fetch them some good ratings.

Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, Unreal premiered in 2015 and managed to stir up a conversation about the reality of reality television. Starring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in lead roles, Unreal was one of those shows which made you feel dirty for participating in the world of reality TV, even if just as the audience.

unreal tv show At what point do you separate your morality from your work? Unreal asks this question over and over again. (Photo: Lifetime)

What is Unreal all about?

Unreal opens on the set of Everlasting (a stand-in for The Bachelor) where the boss Quinn (Zimmer) has rehired Rachel (Appleby) after she had a major breakdown at the end of the previous season. Their job is to manage the contestants and the suitor, and lead them in the direction of making a decision that would fetch the show the maximum ratings.

Getting contestants drunk, making them poop their pants, pitching two warring women against each other even if that leads to physical altercation, leading the suitor towards a woman they want to win is all fair game to producers like Quinn and Rachel, even if it results in someone’s death. Over the course of the four seasons, Quinn and Rachel try to find their path as they keep losing their morality bit by bit.

The show is based on co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s experiences while she was a producer on The Bachelor.

What works for Unreal?

When the first season of the show began, it was like a scathing expose of the dark underbelly of reality show television. Even though 2015 was just five years ago, the landscape for female characters on television wasn’t as developed as it is today, so it was refreshing to see well-fleshed out female characters on screen.

The relationship between Quinn and Rachel worked fantastically well for the show. It was toxic, co-dependent, manipulative and often felt immoral. Their professional life seeped into their personal life, so you never knew if Quinn was looking out for Rachel or she was just another pawn in her scheme of things.

The delicious drama of contestants being ready to cross all limits as long as they won the prize (the suitor) made this show an exciting combination of the juiciest parts of reality television without any farce.

The show tried to handle harassment, sexism and racism at the workplace, the bureaucratic nature of an office (in this case showbusiness) and the scheming bosses that are found in every profession. However, the glorious journey that Unreal started in Season 1, and somehow sustained in Season 2, got derailed by Season 3.

What went wrong with Unreal?

Before I talk about what went wrong with Unreal in its third season, it is worth knowing that after the first two seasons aired on Lifetime, the show went into a state of oblivion. The second season ended in 2016, but there was no word on Season 3. The third season premiered in 2018 but by then, the landscape had changed so drastically, and the show had kind of lost its rhythm.

unreal reality show tv rewind It felt like Rachel’s mental health issues, which were once central to her character, were completely glossed over towards the latter half of the series. (Photo: Lifetime)

Even though the first two seasons had its share of flaws, the show’s complicated characters and brilliant performers overshadowed those problems. As the third season began, it was hard to come to terms with Rachel’s truth-telling path that pushed her far away from the demons that she was struggling with in the past.

While the first two seasons depended on the contestants of the show to provide the drama, from the third season, the drama was created by the producers which made it feel very soap-like. The last season was so convoluted in its story-telling that it did not even feel like the same show.

Zimmer’s Quinn still got the better end of the deal, but it was Appleby’s Rachel that left me with a puzzled expression through those last two seasons.

Unreal was in a very unique position to take the conversation about workplace harassment forward as the show frequently showed how sexual favours were expected out of women/men to get ahead in the showbiz game, but despite having the opportunity, this was never explored fully.

The show also tried to explore the angle of mental health issues for those working in highly stressful jobs, but the handling of it was not consistent.

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Unreal won a Peabody award and the first two seasons of the show are worth every minute, the latter half not-so-much.

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