TV Review: Lifetime’s UnReal Season 1 Exceeds Reasonable Expectations


UnReal (Lifetime)

UnReal (Lifetime)

As you may have heard by now, Lifetime’s UnReal is fantastic. Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnReal goes behind the scenes of a fictional The Bachelor style reality-TV show called Everlasting. At the start of the series, Everlasting’s brash executive producer, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), rehires unpredictable producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), much to the crew’s chagrin.

At the end of the previous season of Everlasting, Rachel had had an on-camera meltdown which should have ended her career. Meltdown notwithstanding, Quinn values Rachel’s ability to manipulate people and situations and to create so-called “Great TV.” She brings Rachel back into the fold.

UnReal’s first season came to a spectacular close earlier this week. Over the course of season one, Rachel effortlessly manipulates Everlasting’s events as she carries on relationships with two men (Everlasting’s bachelor, Adam (Freddie Stroma), and her now-engaged ex, Jeremy (Josh Kelly)). Meanwhile, Quinn fights for control of Everlasting with her sometimes-lover, Chet (a perfectly schlumpy Craig Bierko), who stole the idea for Everlasting from her and is known as its creator.

UnReal was, by a large margin, the best show of the summer (I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Lifetime show). It expertly balances the Reality-TV melodrama satire with its own characters’ personal lives and drama (an area of the show that is itself entrenched in melodrama). It is one of the best Hollywood/entertainment-industry-set shows in years, in that the exposé elements of the show never overshadow what’s really important: the characters.

Shiri Appleby is spectacular here. UnReal isn’t a very subtle show (there are multiple instances in each episode where the subtext becomes text), but Appleby, unlike some of her co-stars, is able to make the most of her quieter, more introspective moments. She is deliberately understated as Rachel makes all of the Everlasting contestants feel as though she is their friend, just to take advantage of each of their weaknesses as soon as it’s convenient for the show.

Zimmer is similarly impressive. Her character, Quinn, is much flashier than Appleby’s, and even when Quinn’s barking dialogue leans just a bit too far into the simplistic, Zimmer saves it with her enjoyably loud performance. This is a very good role for her, which is nice given the fact that for so long she’s been poorly used on shows like House of Cards and Entourage.

Appleby and Zimmer are both pitch-perfect, and their roles are the most prominent. But UnReal is a show with a real ensemble, starting with Stroma as English bachelor Adam. Early on in the season, I was concerned that Adam would simply serve as the generically handsome love-interest, with not enough depth or character to make Rachel’s attraction to him feel important. I was quickly proven wrong. Adam is immediately made into one of the show’s best characters as we explore his desire to live up to his family name, his tendency toward public screw-ups, his interest in Rachel, and his weaknesses as they relate to the beautiful women Everlasting surrounds him with. Stroma’s casting is brilliant, because although he may appear vaguely uninteresting upon first sight, he has both the dramatic and the comedic sensibility necessary to portray all of Adam’s intricate personality. (The same is not true regarding Josh Kelly’s performance as Jeremy, however, who remains throughout the season just as bland and boring as he is the moment you lay eyes on him in episode one. He is easily the worst actor on the show and kind of ruins every scene he appears in.)

Another area in which UnReal is surprisingly adroit is in the portrayal and development of the women competing for Adam’s hand on Everlasting. Each is given her own set of distinct personality traits, quirks, and flaws. They are all cast extremely well, but I’ll only talk about a few of them here: Johanna Braddy is the standout as Anna, the smartest of the bunch. Of the contestants, she is clearly the most aware that it’s all a game, a set-up to produce compelling television. Eventually, and against her better judgment, Anna succumbs to the charms of the imaginary reality that Everlasting presents her with. Breeda Wool is great as Faith, the awkward virgin who has a very personal secret she is trying to keep under wraps. And Ashley Scott is very affecting as Mary, the troubled single mom with an abusive ex whose story ends in tragedy.

As Rachel’s producer colleagues, Jeffrey Bowyer and Aline Elasmar are terrific in smaller roles. They each project a perfect amount of insecurity and desperation to succeed in the industry (desperation to succeed being an underlying theme of UnReal, clearly.)

UnReal’s season one finale begins with a twist that feels at first unwarranted. A character who was headed in a very specific direction abruptly decides to change the course of his life. As the finale unfolds and his motivations become clear, the brilliant craftiness of the show becomes ever more apparent. The finale is laden with so many twists, turns, and double crosses that you may have to watch it twice to really get what’s going on. Like the entirety of UnReal, the finale is strong in a way it has no right to be.

And the show ends with its main characters right where they should be: Rachel and Quinn, having lost a lot but taken revenge on those who wronged them, in a quiet, touching, loving moment of friendship. It’s a moment that similar premier cable shows with male main characters would never even attempt, unfortunately. It’s an example of what makes UnReal special, unique, and utterly important.

UnReal Season 1 Rating: 9/10

Eli is a 20-year-old film student living in Boston. He spends quite a bit of his free time consuming pop culture and media: movies, TV, podcasts, etc. He is an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker and will almost certainly “make it” one day. His favorite filmmakers are Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin McDonagh, and the Coen Brothers; his favorite movies are Punch Drunk Love, Amelie, Once, O Brother Where Art Thou, and In Bruges. A true contrarian, Eli believes that Christopher Nolan, Marvel, and small children are overrated.