The summer television season is young, but one promising entry, “UnREAL,” arrived on Lifetime last night with a tartness to rival even fresh-squeezed and under-sweetened lemonade. The show from Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro chronicles the process of making a reality show that looks an awful lot like “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” which is airing its 11th season on ABC this summer. “UnReal”centers on the dynamic between Quinn (the always excellent Constance Zimmer), the executive producer of the show in question, and Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a women’s studies major and one of Quinn’s former employees. Rachel had a breakdown in the last season of the show, crashing the proposal ceremony to decry the evils of her job. But Quinn has lured her back because Rachel’s ability to connect with the women on the series, rather than holding them in simple contempt, gets far better results than any machinations the rest of the staff can muster.
“UnREAL” tackles all the hot topics that have made “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” such dishy grist for the entertainment press with all the relish of a linebacker who just wants to hit somebody. “That’s your girl? That’s the one you said had wife potential?” Quinn snaps at one of her recruiters in an early scene when she gets a look at a contestant. “She’s black.” An on-set psychiatrist advises the staff on the contestants’ psychological weak points so that they can go out and hit those sore spots while pushing champagne and shots. Quinn offers “cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls and catfights.” The selection process is gamed to maximize drama.
Even the bachelor, an heir to a hotel fortune named Adam (Freddie Stroma), is supposed to follow orders: “Oh, just be a good meat puppet and do as I say,” Quinn mutters as she watches him on the monitors. When Rachel goes to rope Adam back into the shoot when he gets jitters, she essentially makes the argument that he wasn’t warned. “What was so offensive to your fine sensibility that you needed to flee?” Rachel asks Adam. Lest I depict the show as unrelentingly unpleasant, there are complexities here, most significantly Quinn’s interest in Rachel, which is both predatory and protective; if Rachel stays on the show, she’ll get charges related to her meltdown dropped. Watching Rachel ponder Quinn’s offer while also acting as a saboteur poses an old question in a new format: Can you use reality television’s tropes to tear down the “Bachelor” mansion’s illusions?
Part of what’s delightful about “UnREAL” is the way it confirms our worst suspicions about shows such as “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” even while indicting us: Quinn and Rachel are just giving us what we’ve indicated over and over again that we want. Whether seeing the process in all of its manipulative unnaturalness is a turn-off or an inducement is an open question.
For now, I’m betting on a turn-on, given the way this season of “The Bachelorette” is proceeding.
The big hook for this latest installment of the franchise was a format change. Instead of a single Bachelorette sorting through a roster of candidates, “The Bachelorette” brought on two contestants from the last season of “The Bachelor,” Kaitlyn Bristowe and Britt Nilsson. This design injected a note of competition into what is normally an opportunity for a woman to be in charge, and it also created some roiled emotions for the men who showed up to compete for their hearts. Maybe it’s fame that is the primary lure for people who audition for “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” but the contestants had auditioned with either Nilsson or Bristowe as their secondary targets. When Nilsson was eliminated, some of the men who were left had to decide whether they wanted to try to date a woman they weren’t particularly interested in or attracted to.
One man’s reckoning produced an eminently repackage-able story line: Brady Toops, a songwriter, quit the show after Bristowe became the sole Bachelorette because he wanted he wanted to pursue a relationship with Nilsson. ABC is now following their courtship as a subplot.
But the most interesting parts of “The Bachelorette” this season have been rawer moments that reveal the seams between what we’re seeing on-screen and the process that went into making the show. These choices to lift the curtain feel like an anticipation of “UnREAL,” which yanks up a curtain that has been coyly creeping upward almost since the franchise’s inception.
In the first episode, Ryan McDill became heavily intoxicated and made a nasty rape joke on-air. But the audience got to see him escorted out of the mansion by security, a jarring reminder that in an inherently combustible situation, ABC is prepared for the possibility that any hurt might extend beyond the participants’ feelings.
The two subsequent episodes began and ended with Bristowe eliminating Kupah James, one of the few contestants of color in her remaining pool of suitors. Rather than going quietly, James had a meltdown outside the mansion, confronting show staff and venting his considerable frustration with the process. “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” were hit with a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2012; the case was thrown out on First Amendment grounds. And while the excerpts of James’s comments that made it to air didn’t explicitly address race, it was clear he felt profoundly out of place and alienated by the process.
“UnREAL” isn’t the first show to take a critical look at the “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchise: The Web series “Burning Love” provided three seasons of incisive satire on the subject. But watching “UnREAL” and “The Bachelorette” simultaneously suggests just how powerful and persistent the format has become. Exposing the mechanics behind it only creates new opportunities for ABC to gin up drama.