Review: UnREAL Soars By Going Where Real-Life Reality TV Fears To Tread

Jun 6, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 6:47 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, so first there was television, then there was reality television, supposedly capturing real life. Now we have "UnREAL," a satire of reality TV on the Lifetime network. It goes behind the scenes of a dating show that's a take-off of "The Bachelor." "UnREAL" has won critical acclaim and a Peabody Award in its first season. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show takes you where real-life reality TV often won't go.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "UnREAL" kicks off its new season tonight by pulling off something even "The Bachelor" hasn't managed yet. They cast a black man as the suitor who picks a forever love from the crowd of hopeful women. Of course, the casting decision was met with a bit of surprise by the network, forcing producers to do some damage control on a conference call with the network president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNREAL")

CHRISTOPHER COUSINS: (As Gary) He's black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Yeah, he's the first black...

CONSTANCE ZIMMER: (As Quinn King) No, he's not that black, all right, Gary? He's, like, football black.

COUSINS: (As Gary) I know who he is, all right? I'm looking at him right now. He's black.

DEGGANS: Before too long, an explanation of the strategy comes from the show's top producer Quinn King, played with mean-girl ferocity by Constance Zimmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNREAL")

ZIMMER: (As Quinn King) You know, hell yes, he's going to be dating white chicks, OK? I promise you 20 million viewers. Twitter will melt down.

DEGGANS: That sums up the appeal of "UnREAL." It exposes the underbelly of reality TV while examining the impact on the people who make it. Check out this conversation where a clueless staffer asked her boss Rachel about changing accommodations for a contestant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNREAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Beth Ann, a white supremacist, doesn't want a room with Chantal, our black debutante.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Yeah, I was just going to move her. It would be super easy.

SHIRI APPLEBY: (As Rachel Goldberg) Madison, we aren't camp counselors. We don't solve problems, OK? We create them, and then we point cameras at them. We need you to go outside and create an on-camera fight between the racist and the black debutante. Do you understand?

DEGGANS: Yeah, I think we understand. Still, beneath the manipulation of contestants, there's a more subtle story here. Rachel, played by Shiri Appleby, is promoted to show runner, controlling every aspect of the dating show "Everlasting." But the pressure is turning her into a mirror image of the caustic, demanding Quinn. Her ex-boyfriend, who hates her guts and works as a cameraman on the show, is worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNREAL")

JOSH KELLY: (As Jeremy Caner) Looks like you haven't slept in weeks.

APPLEBY: (As Rachel Goldberg) And so what, you're worried about me?

KELLY: (As Jeremy Caner) No, I don't give a rat's ass about you. But if anybody needs me to testify that you're a threat to yourself and others, yeah, I'm there.

APPLEBY: (As Rachel Goldberg) Really, is that right?

KELLY: (As Jeremy Caner) Yeah, but it's mostly for the others though because at this point, I'm actually OK with you hurting yourself.

APPLEBY: (As Rachel Goldberg) That's a really dark thing to say.

DEGGANS: Even a cynical producer manipulating racial controversy for ratings can still be stung by the contempt of a former love. In real life, ABC's "The Bachelor" has been sued for its lack of diversity, never casting a black man in the lead role over its 14-year history. That might be because the show's built as a real-life princess fantasy for its mostly female viewership with little room for a black Prince Charming. Racial tension may play out on the sidelines among contestants, but it never takes center stage the way it does on "UnREAL."

Lifetime's show is impressive because it works on so many different levels. The central irony of "UnREAL," for example, is that two smart and empowered women like Quinn and Rachel are working so hard to create and control a show that exploits smart and empowered women just like them. "UnREAL's" second season takes that irony even further as Rachel convinces herself that the positive impact of casting a black man outweighs the harm of the show's stereotyping and lack of real female empowerment. That sounds an awful lot like the hypocritical thinking that justifies much of the exploitative reality TV we see on the small screen today. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.