I admit it and I make no apologies: I love The Bachelor. I love The Bachelorette too, and I love Bachelor in Paradise most of all. I can’t pretend to be a huge fan of “reality TV” in general, but there is something seductive about putting 25 women in a house and having them fight over the same guy (or 25 men fighting over the same woman). The pettiness, the catfighting, the scheming, the unself-aware narcissism, the raging hubris – I find it all enormously entertaining and by far the best kind of television to make fun of with my wife.
It’s long been obvious that “reality” is little more than a euphemism for what goes on on these shows – online commenters are always quick to point out when this or that contestant is getting the “villain edit” – but we have only been able to guess at the extent to which events are massaged on these shows.
Lifetime’s excellent scripted drama UnREAL, returning for its second season at 10pm ET Monday June 6, pulls back the curtain on what it takes to get one of these shows on the air with the level of drama audiences expect. Set behind the scenes at a distinctly Bachelor-esque show called Everlasting, complete with eligible suitor, 25 prospective “wifeys,” and über-cheesy host.
But the show isn’t really about them: it’s about the show’s hypercompetent, ruthless, acid-tongued showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer, Entourage) and her faithful lieutenant and contestant-whisperer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and the lengths they go to to keep the crazy train on the rails.
Season 1 found Rachel returning to work after a very public breakdown, in which she wandered glassy-eyed onto the set during the previous season’s finale, and swiftly recovering her mojo, manipulating contestants into confrontations, into saying what she needs them to say to fit the “characters” she’s cast them as, and managing the show’s suitor, an English heir who turns out to be more interested in Rachel than any of the contestants. Sure, one of the contestants committed suicide during a bipolar episode after one of Rachel’s fellow producers tampered with her medication, but everyone knows you need to break a few eggs if you’re gonna make an omlette.
In season 2, Quinn has been promoted to executive producer and Rachel to showrunner, and they’ve hatched a plan to top the boffo ratings of the suicide season: they’ll give Everlasting its first black suitor, an NFL quarterback with a PR problem (his answer to a female reporter who asked if his skills were slipping was “Bitch, please”), and surround him with a white supremacist, a Black Lives Matter activist, and a terrorist, along with the usual lineup of prospects.
Rachel and Quinn seem to be thick as thieves, even getting matching NSFW wrist tattoos, as they settle into their new positions. Rachel needs a little adjusting to being the boss – when new producer Madison needs guidance, Quinn barks at her protege, “you’re Quinn, she’s Rachel” – but soon enough things are back out of balance when wayward show creator (or “creator,” since it turned out last season that he simply stole all of Quinn’s ideas for Everlasting) Chet (Craig Bierko) returns from an extended safari, clean and sober and crazy as ever, eager to wrest control of the show back from Quinn. Once he starts meddling with the production at the first night’s shooting, the stage is set for a power struggle between competing visions for what the show should be.
The key performances at the center of the show, from Zimmer and Appleby, are both note-perfect: Zimmer tosses off one-liners with the same deadly accuracy as her onetime costar Jeremy Piven (example: “I’m an underwear psychic, and I bet this bitch packed granny panties”) while occasionally showing the disappointed optimist underneath it all, while Appleby alternates between vulnerable and ruthless – an early scene where she puppeteers the young producer via earpiece into brutally dismantling the emotional defenses of a widowed contestant is heartbreaking, particularly given Rachel’s ethical struggles through season 1, and it may not even be the worst thing she does in the episode (persuading a bright young woman to drop out of college, and persuading another to wear her Confederate-flag bikini to a pool party with the quarterback and his entourage are both strong contenders).
If you had told me the show I would be most excited for the summer would be a Lifetime original series about a reality dating show, I would have thought you were crazy. But the age of Peak TV works in mysterious ways, and great shows can be found just about anywhere. UnREAL is great drama and black comedy and reality TV exposé all rolled up into a delicious package, focused on strong female characters with broad appeal not rooted in their sexuality or their relationships with men. What more could you want from a summer TV series?