Lifetime Delivers Strong Series with UnREAL
" Lifetime's Newest Scripted Series is Surprisingly Good"
I never thought I would type these words, but Lifetime has a really good new series. I know, I know, you are probably rolling your eyes, but hear me out. UnREAL
, a very dark comedy from Marti Noxon (a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and Mad Men
) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who wrote the short film Sequin Raze
on which the series is based), is a sharp and complex look at the murky (and often just awful) world in front of and behind the camera at a Bachelor
-type reality series.
Now, I am not sure how much of the reality side of things rings true, as I have never actually sat through an episode of The Bachelor
(or any of the reality romance shows out there), but what makes the series compelling isn't that it shows what might be going on behind the scenes at such a series. Rather, this is a show about Rachel (played brilliantly by Shiri Appleby), a producer and contestant whisperer who went off the deep end a year ago and has now returned to the set of Everlasting
stand-in series) to take her lumps and make amends for the damage she caused (among her crimes, a DUI and damage to property). Appleby, who has always played steady and likeable characters in her previous work, really shines here in a role that allows her to skirt the edges of the good girl. Rachel is our protagonist, but she certainly isn't our hero. She's conflicted about some of the things she must do, but still goes about them willingly. There are also a number of hints that Rachel might be battling some more concrete mental demons of her own, but the show wisely keeps any true answers as to why Rachel continues within this world of reality hell vague (at least through the show's initial three episode, which were made available for critics).
Joining Appleby on this dark and winding journey is the excellent Constance Zimmer, who takes on the role of the reality show's brutal and unyielding executive producer, Quinn. Zimmer is magnificent, diving into her role as the head bitch in charge with gusto and adding depth to a character that could easily read as one note. As with Rachel, there is more to Quinn that first meets the eye. While she's willing to do what it takes to create good TV, Quinn still has a heart and a soft spot for Rachel. The relationship between the two women is the real lynchpin of the series, and Zimmer and Appleby sell every scene they have together.
There are, of course, various romantic angles, although Noxon and Shapiro are careful to avoid pushing any of them too fast. We learn early on that Rachel had a past relationship with a fellow crew member, and while it is a source of tension in the earlier episodes, it's clear Rachel has way more pressing issues to deal with than the potential of rekindling an old flame. Quinn is a bit mired down in an affair with Chet, a studio executive played by Craig Bierko (who appears to be channeling Vincent D'Onofrio in both his performance and appearance), but the relationship helps show her human side and adds complexity to the character.
After seeing the first three episodes, I am reminded a great deal of early Orange is the New Black
in both tone and the use of the show's mostly female cast. As with Piper on Orange
, Rachel is much closer to an antihero than a hero (Quinn would be right at home with the ladies in Litchfield), and it's refreshing to see a show with two female leads who are more like Don Draper than June Cleaver. The series manages to successfully skirt the line of melodrama, forcing us to accept some of the awful things our leading ladies draw out of the reality show's contestants and never seeking absolution for their actions. The series is open about asking the hard questions- mainly, is the quest for good television worth hurting people- but it refrains from preaching any answers. This refusal to take a side is what makes the series so compelling. There are no easy answers here, and it's clear that the drama Rachel and Quinn help stir up on the series is taking its toll on both women as well. But there is just enough to like about both Quinn and Rachel, and more than enough depth for each of them, to make me want to spend more time with them behind the scenes of Everlasting
Lifetime has ordered a ten-episode first season for the series, and the show airs Monday nights at 10:00/9:00 CT.