On UnReal, Constance Zimmer plays Quinn, a reality show producer who manipulates contestants' lives for maximum drama.
Lifetime's newest scripted series, UnReal, is a deliciously cynical behind-the-scenes look at the absurdity and horror of reality TV. On the set of the fictional show Everlasting– a thinly veiled stand-in for The Bachelor—competitors offer sexual favors in order to have their rivals eliminated, a young woman is held hostage on the set while a family tragedy unfolds at home, and Black women are told the only way they can stay on the show is if they pander to racist stereotypes.
UnReal is presented through the point of view of a reluctant Everlasting producer, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Applebee), a self-identifying feminist who was driven to the edge during the shooting of a previous season. Rachel’s meltdown had legal and financial consequences, and she's forced to go back to the scene of the crime in order to keep her head above water. Rachel and her boss, executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), share a Stockholm Syndrome-esque dependency on the drama and dysfunction that infuse the set of Everlasting. Both women know on an intellectual level that what they are doing—manipulating vulnerable women, manufacturing hurtful conflict for the sake of “good TV,” enforcing unrealistic body image standards—is wrong. But they can't help themselves. They are addicted.
Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Applebee) feels trapped in her job as a reality TV producer.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who co-created UnReal with veteran TV producer Marti Noxon, is a former Bachelor producer herself. She was so traumatized by her work on the reality show that she packed up and left the state of California—the only way she could get out of her contract was to move out of state. While Shapiro insists that UnReal is “100 percent fiction,” she's heard from people still working in the industry who see it as “scary accurate.”
“It's such a rich world to set a show in, because it's funny and fantastic and full of glitter and sparkles and ponies, but it's also really dark and really human,” Shapiro says of UnReal. “It's this fishbowl where all these people are looking for love and they can't leave. The contestants and the producers, all of those characters are stuck in one place with each other. It's a great place to set that Faustian tale.” It's interesting to see this dark commentary airing on Lifetime, which makes its bread and butter from reality shows like Dance Moms and Hoarders.
The romantic psychodramas of UnReal extend beyond the fantastical set of Everlasting. Quinn is having an affair with the show's creator, a dude who took credit for her idea without giving her any stake. Meanwhile, Rachel is still reeling from a brief fling with a cameraman (whose fiance also works on the show) and getting dangerously close to the man the women of Everlasting are competing for: blue-blooded British playboy Adam Cromwell.
Adam's motivations for signing onto Everlasting have nothing to do with the “true love” that Quinn commands her staff to manufacture. Rather, being on the reality show is an act of childish rebellion against his disapproving father and an opportunity to get the attention of deep-pocketed investors for a vineyard he wants to open. Still, Adam isn't a monster, and he is put through the ringer as much as the contestants are.
It's clear that the writers of UnReal see the title “producer” as a neat stand-in for “manipulator.” On numerous occasions, show staffers encourages each other to “produce” a given person in order to trick them into doing something that is likely not in their best interests. This game—earning and immediately exploiting the trust of people who depend on you—plays out like an infectious body-snatching disease on the set of the show: It's either be the monster or get eaten by it.
“In becoming an adult, you have to make a lot of compromises,” Shapiro says. “For me, it's about zoning in on those moments where the compromise goes too far.”
At its season's midpoint, UnReal's darkest storyline involves Everlasting contestant Mary, a single mother and domestic abuse survivor who is slightly older than the rest of the contestants and who suffers from bipolar disorder, which she manages with medication (until she doesn't, but we won't give too much away). She's a gorgeous woman with a body any 22-year-old would kill for, but is immediately pigeonholed by the show's staff—and consequently the viewers—as a desperate, saggy old hag.
Asked if relegating a woman of model-quality looks to the reject pile was an intentional commentary, Shapiro said it absolutely was. “The idea that they are calling her an old saggy sack is absurd,” she says. “It's really about the male gaze. Rachel and Quinn are forced to adopt the male gaze because they are trading in it. That's their commerce. They've learned how to look at women like men look at women. They've learned how to evaluate women the way men evaluate women.”
Shapiro says that one of her hopes for UnReal is that it will help women realize how much we are complicit in endorsing the warped perspective of TV that caters to bottom-feeder desires. “The secret I want to unlock is how if all of us women decided to stop doing that… we could actually change the world.”
The show's commentary on race is harder to unlock. After 19 seasons of The Bachelor and 11 seasons of The Bachelorette, the shows have had only one person of color in the title roles. And they only signed on that person, soccer player Juan Pablo Galavis, after two Black men filed a discrimination lawsuit pointing out that the show was all-white. Since its premiere episode, it has seemed as though UnReal wants to say something about the racist elements of The Bachelor and its ilk, but at the moment that something seems to be: “Well of course an eligible blue-blooded bachelor wouldn't go for a Black woman, so the Black contestants might as well milk their 15 minutes of fame for all its worth.” Asked if we could expect UnReal to further address the racial and class dynamics of popular reality competition shows, Shapiro says, “I think it's going to get worse. And it's something we want to address more in season two.”
The Bachelor has been on the air for 19 seasons and between The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, four couples who met on the shows have gotten married. Still, the reality show continues to be a ratings powerhouse for ABC, long after the jig has been up: Contestants and viewers can in no way suspend their disbelief that the series is anything but a twisted charade. Why do we keep coming back, season after ridiculous, humiliating season?
“They tapped into the cracked-out, crazy fiend in all of us for the princess fantasies,” Shapiro said. “This idea that if you're pretty enough and skinny enough someone will come save you, and that's all it takes, is so intoxicating.”
In doing research for UnReal, Shapiro and her team found that this kind of programming is popular among women who we wouldn't traditionally think of as needing to be “saved.”
“We found that super educated, really successful women love shows like The Bachelor. I have this image of a woman working 90 hours a week at a law firm trying to make partner, coming home and thinking, 'Hell yeah I want to be flown around in a helicopter just because I'm cute,'” she said. “I think that's really appealing, especially to people who are battling their own way through the world.”
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