It’s an image you’ve seen a hundred times before: A score of gorgeous, perfectly-groomed young women in evening gowns standing nervously by the edge of an underwater-lit, electric blue swimming pool. Behind them is the immaculate landscape of a Southern California mini-palace, so verdant and lush (drought be damned) you can practically smell the night-blooming jasmine. In front of them is a handsome young man with a necktie and a studiously sober expression, clutching in his carefully spray-tanned hands a single, long-stemmed red rose.
But this time, it’s not yet another rose ceremony on yet another season of The Bachelor—this is actually a scene from UnREAL, Lifetime’s buzzed-about, new scripted television drama that takes us behind the scenes of the fictional reality TV dating show “Everlasting,” a shot-by-shot stand-in for the tabloids’ favorite romantic behemoth, which will soon enter into its 20th season! Through a mixture of evocative storytelling, biting social critique, and shockingly vital characters, UnReal, created by Marti Noxon (Mad Men, Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL purports to show us how our reality sausage is made—and see if we still like the taste.
The result is a fascinating. Of all the curious subcultures reality television has introduced us to—e.g., your gypsy wedding planners, your Jersey Shore revelers, your storage unit scavengers—the one we’ve never gotten to see is that of the people who actually make reality television. UnREAL details this strange, frenetic, nocturnal race wherein cast members spend the wee hours of the morning comforting weeping women for self-serving reasons and barking things like, “Where’s my bitch? I need more bitch!” in front of a bank of television monitors.
We’ve got producer Quinn, played with maximum cynicism by Constance Zimmer, who knows she’s only as good as the on-screen meltdowns she can orchestrate, and her coked-out lover, executive producer Chet (Craig Bierko), a textbook Hollywood powerjerk who seems unexpectedly human. There’s Freddie Stroma as Adam Cromwell, the handsome British hotel heir that the contestants are lining up to be wooed by, without ever quite realizing he’s only there for some quick image rehab after a spate of hideous (and public) party-boy behavior left his business interests in jeopardy. And there’s Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), a polite and impeccably educated African-American man who finds himself coaxing one of—if not the only—black contestants who, since she knows she doesn’t have a prayer of sticking around until the final rose, might as well start behaving like a Real Housewife of Atlanta and at least get some serious camera time.
Best of all, there’s Rachel Goldberg, the main character, played brilliantly by Shiri Appleby. Rachel is, to put it bluntly, a total mess, and not in a cute romantic comedy way. She’s was fired from, or left, the show in the previous seasons, for reasons that are still unclear but serious enough that her reappearance raises plenty of eyebrows. She’s had trouble with the law; she had an affair with her engaged cameraman; she was evicted from her apartment’ she’s resorted to washing her armpits with wet wipes in the on-set trailer she’s currently forced to call home. More than any other character, Rachel has deep moral qualms about the show she works on—sexism and a whiff of prostitution hangs over the whole enterprise—and what she’s forced to do on it: the constant gentle coaxing and pretended friendship she offers the women in order to get them to reveal their darkest secrets, and act against their best judgment on camera.
Rachel Goldberg might just be the first Jewish female antihero on television! She knows that her job is in many ways reprehensible. She also knows she’s better at it than anyone else, and what makes her good at it is her capacity for empathy. She knows exactly the personal story of her own past to share to get someone else to spill his or her own or her own; like a camp counselor, she’s got a gifted way of comforting the homesick and out-of-place. What makes her good at her job isn’t that she doesn’t feel guilty, it’s that she does. When she talks a grieving contestant away from her father’s funeral, knowing she’ll be giving her the full “villain edit” later—Rachel needs the $5000 “bitch bonus” she’ll collect as a result to pay off the vindictive roommate who is blackmailing her (this is a soap, after all)—she clearly feels terrible about it.
And that’s precisely what makes her so dangerous: the contestants trust her because her sense of guilt is so apparent. Rachel Goldberg is a fully realized human being; she just happens to be a human being who can only fix her own life by destroying someone else’s. The girl who knows what she needs and will stop at nothing to get it? It’s a standard trope on reality television. Add some moral ambiguity, and it’s the stuff that great literature is made of.