Despite being one of the best dramas Lifetime has developed in recent memory, “UnReal” faces an uncertain future. That’s because its premise — a behind-the-scenes look at a fictitious, very “The Bachelor”-like reality show — might be too sophisticated and pointed for the audience that buys into such fare, while offering scant appeal to those who don’t care. Commercial considerations notwithstanding, showrunner Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who made the original short film on which this show is based, have produced a savvy, acerbic look at how the reality-TV sausage gets made, with all its inherent manipulation, and collateral damage be damned.
Shiri Appleby stars as Rachel, a producer on the dating show “Everlasting,” returning from a leave of absence after a breakdown that, like everything else surrounding the program, was caught on tape. Rachel might be a voice of reason, but her own morality is fungible, especially when hard-driving executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) offers “cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls and fights,” rallying the troops by saying, “Get me some good TV.”
As the series makes clear, though, “good” has very little to do with “real,” which is why the producers can try to bait the contestants into useful sound bites and breakdowns that can be edited, without context, to tell the story they want. The behind-the-scenes drama also includes Quinn’s ongoing affair with the show’s coke-snorting, absentee creator (Craig Bierko), a character that — given the obvious real-world parallels to “The Bachelor” — looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
“UnReal” also delves into the lives of the contestants, starting with the bachelor (Freddie Stroma), who isn’t as pliant as the producers would like. The women vying for his attention, meanwhile, range from cynical and scheming — seeing the promotional value in their exposure — to vulnerable and naive.
“It is not my fault that America’s racist,” the producer notes early on, regarding the likelihood of an African-American being the last woman standing. Later, two of the African-American women are counseled to play the villain — think “The Apprentice’s” Omarosa — if they want to hang around longer than usual.
In the early going, the series manages to tap into these threads and reality staples (the producers at one point are dispatched on a “bitch hunt”), with Rachel’s pangs of conscience bumping up against her drive to succeed and get her life back on track. There is, admittedly, a lingering danger that the show’s writers will push the fictitious drama too far, but through three episodes, anyway, they manage to dance up to that line without stumbling across it.
As noted, the problem is that those who watch reality TV — a staple, incidentally, of Lifetime’s lineup — probably won’t be all that receptive to a series that seeks to expose how corrupt the process is. And those who don’t watch can feel superior without reinforcement from a show like this.
Strictly as a well-produced drama, though, “UnReal” looks like the real deal. So in the parlance of the genre that it parodies, the series deserves to be allowed to continue on its journey for at least a while longer.