If you’ve been shocked by the drama on Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” you may want to brace yourself before watching the 20-minute short film that inspired it.
“Sequin Raze” is an engrossing look at the darker side of reality television, anchored by a scene in which a disheveled producer on a “Bachelor”-esque dating show plays on the deepest insecurities of a contestant while trying to get her to open up about being dismissed by the show’s dashing suitor. “UnREAL’s” co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who once worked as a producer on “The Bachelor,” wrote and directed the film in 2012 as part of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women.
This video contains some strong language.
The short stars Ashley Williams as Rebecca, the producer who resorts to downright diabolical tactics in her quest for reality-TV gold. Anna Camp plays Jessica, the show’s first runner-up, who clearly expected to walk away with an engagement ring.
Initially, Jessica refuses to talk about being rejected on camera. But Rebecca is relentless, urging her to express her feelings so they can both go home. When that doesn’t work, Rebecca uses information given to her by the on-set therapist, Dr. Wagerstein (Frances Conroy), who reveals that Jessica has struggled with an eating disorder and other mental-health issues. Rebecca prods Jessica with questions (and vague implications that the suitor had issues with her appearance) until she eventually breaks into tears.
It’s a strong foundation for “UnREAL,” now in its second season. The Lifetime drama stars Shiri Appleby as Rachel, a producer whose feminism is often at odds with the morally questionable things she has to do to make “Everlasting,” “UnREAL’s” fictional reality show, a success. (“Sequin Raze” hints at similar tension as Rebecca sports a graphic T-shirt that reads: “George Bush Out Of My Uterus.”)
Things get a bit more Hollywood in the Lifetime version. Rachel is in a continuous power struggle with the show’s creators, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Chet (Craig Bierko), adding to the behind-the-scenes drama. And while Rachel appears consistently unkempt in the show’s first season, Season 2 finds her trading her cargo jacket and hoodie for decidedly more polished Helmut Lang blazers and even formal wear.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Shapiro said she pitched “UnREAL” as “a feminist working on ‘The Bachelor’ has a nervous breakdown.” She also showed Lifetime executives “Sequin Raze,” which was based on some of her lowest moments while working on “The Bachelor.” As in “UnREAL” and “Sequin Raze” before it, production strategies on ABC’s reality show included misleading contestants and going to elaborate lengths to make them cry on camera, according to Shapiro. The New Yorker explains:
Shapiro kept jalapeños or lemons hidden in her jacket pocket — dabbing something acidic in her eye allowed her to cry on cue, which helped elicit tears from the contestant. “I’d have arranged with the driver to have the song play just until I got a shot of her crying — then cut the music so I could start the interview,” Shapiro explained. “They’d often tell us to drive up and down the 405 until the girls cried — and not to come home if we didn’t get tears, because we’d be fired.”
“UnREAL’s” first season featured plenty of tears, in addition to psychological manipulation and a horrifying tragedy tied to the pressure felt by producers on the series’ fictional reality show. Season 2 has upped the stakes with smart commentary on race as Rachel and Quinn convince the network to go with a black bachelor for the first time in “Everlasting” history. Rachel’s own mental health is a recurring point of concern, and her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy, a cameraman on “Everlasting,” took a violent turn in last week’s episode.
“UnREAL” has been lauded by critics and is somewhat of an unexpected hit for Lifetime, despite less-than-stellar ratings. (It’s worth noting that the ratings improve significantly when delayed viewing is taken into account.) The network clearly has faith in its potential — the drama was renewed for a third season ahead of its Season 2 premiere. Not a bad shelf life, considering that “Sequin Raze” clocks in at a whopping 20 minutes and 14 seconds, including credits.