Deliciously good for most of its run, Lifetime’s “UnReal” couldn’t quite maintain those qualities all the way through to the finish. Searing and pointed in its critique of the manipulation that goes into reality TV in general – and producing a “The Bachelor”-like series in particular – the series nearly began choking on its own ruthlessness in the final couple of episodes, with one vindictive exchange after another. Nevertheless, the show was clearly the real deal, creatively speaking, which makes its renewal welcome, even if the ratings didn’t exactly come up roses.
Indeed, most of the misgivings expressed here at the outset proved to be true – namely, that a series spoofing reality shows would probably have scant appeal with both those who do and don’t watch them. Those issues were perhaps exacerbated by airing on a channel like Lifetime, which doesn’t aim this high with much of its programming.
Still, the series – developed by Marti Noxon, from a short by former “Bachelor” producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose knowledge regarding the tricks of the trade showed – felt enormously gutsy, including the death of a contestant earlier in the season. If you want to learn how to get away with murder in television, the lesson seemed to go, just keep your ratings up.
“UnReal” also drew condemnation from, of all people, “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison, presumably because the ersatz version of him on the show within the show (titled “Everlasting”) had so much more charisma. Then again, Harrison is hardly the only person who should have been squirming given the real-world parallels, which perhaps explains why he would draw some comfort from pointing out how ratings-challenged “UnReal” has been.
The finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) certainly had its moments, including the priceless shot of Adam (Freddie Stroma), the show’s dashing bachelor, being filmed riding on a wooden horse, with stunt doubles actually racing across the countryside. There was also some customarily tart dialogue, such as Adam’s crusty British grandmother telling him, “We don’t marry brown people. We just don’t.”
Ultimately, though, “UnReal” did its two most interesting characters, the conflicted producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her ruthless boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer), no favors by having them both essentially turn loopy, then vengeful, over being jilted by men. When Quinn chided Rachel – who had been ready, unconvincingly, to run off with Adam – for “wasting your victory laps crying about boys,” the truth is both of them had exhibited those tendencies, with Quinn just being a little better schooled in the art of “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Indeed, those soapy aspects of “UnReal’s” backstage drama alternately added to its satire of the genre and distracted from it. And while the show’s core ultimately boiled down to a struggle for Rachel’s soul – just how far would she go, and how much collateral damage would she inflict, to succeed in Hollywood? – that was plenty interesting without taking her relationship with Adam beyond flirtation, and even as a one-night stand, it’s hard to buy her falling for him.
A lot of this, admittedly, is quibbling, and the good clearly outweighed the negatives. Lifetime’s renewal likely stemmed in part from the positive press the show generated, but it’s unlikely that will keep the series afloat for long without ratings to back it up. Still, the storytelling was so sharp through much of the season seeing what Noxon and company can do for an encore will certainly be interesting to watch.
With all the crazy stuff that went down in season one, the biggest mistake “UnReal” could make would be to consciously try to top itself, as opposed to just organically continuing its arc.
If that isn’t enough to sustain the network’s passion – or create a love connection with more viewers – that might be more of a conceptual hurdle than a creative one. Because frankly, the public has seemingly lost interest in peeling back the curtain on the well-documented staging and excesses of reality TV, and most media outlets only care about the fact these shows boost Web traffic, becoming the life’s blood of US Weekly and its ilk.
Besides, despite that fairy-tale title of the show within the show, “Everlasting,” nothing on TV – and often, alas, especially nothing that’s really good – lasts forever.