TV: UnREAL (Season 1)

Just in case the ridiculous artifice of reality television hasn’t gotten its comeuppance yet, here comes UnREAL, an unforgiving gut-punch of a drama that goes behind the scenes of a fictional Bachelor-style competition show. It’s a brutal, cringeworthy take-down of Hollywood awfulness, if not also a thinly veiled condemnation of the uglier side of the American dream. As with reality TV itself, there are complex machinations at work underneath the surface of this one.

Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) is a producer for the long-running reality series Everlasting, in which a roster of attractive women vie for the affections of a wealthy, eligible bachelor. Returning for the new season in the wake of an epic, onscreen meltdown the previous year, Rachel is (to say the least) conflicted about her work; “producing” on Everlasting basically means ruthlessly manipulating the contestants in order to generate drama. But she has no choice: she’s weighed down with debt, and pinned under the blackmailing thumb of the show’s executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), who knows that Rachel’s mastery of mindfuckery translates into high ratings. Rachel’s first major task is to prevent the new season’s bachelor, charming British playboy Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), from flouncing off the set. The interaction begins a relationship that may turn the show upside down, if not transform Rachel’s view of what she wants out of life.

Initially UnREAL presents like Burning Love for masochists—a painful glimpse at a world full of Hollywood sociopaths, where every moral compass in broken. But as the season advances, it becomes an increasingly astute critique of American competition culture, where nothing matters but getting what you want, regardless of the consequences. The message is consistently scathing, but offset at times by flashes of goodness that reveal themselves through the fog of ruthless ambition. This is drawn out most clearly in the character of Faith (Breeda Wool), an awkward Christian virgin brought onto the show for the express purpose of being publicly humiliated. But goodness is also just barely detectable under the thick skins of Rachel and Quinn, two of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen on television. Appleby and Zimmer are sensational as psychologically damaged yet resilient players in a cut-throat, media-twisted landscape. Both brilliantly exude an aura usually reserved for male actors: antihero charisma. Even as you deplore their methods, you sympathize with their positions,  and their behavior jerks you back and forth over the line between wanting them to succeed and knowing they deserve to fail. This penetrating element of character study, combined with the twisty narrative and raw social commentary, makes for a riveting season of television, and it all culminates in a clever finale that possesses a unique, fucked-up elegance. Hard to watch at times, but just as hard to look away.

UnREAL

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