UnReal is the kind of show that could have dive-bombed after a promising pilot. You really needed to take in the second episode to judge if it’s worth following.

Image provided by imdb/Lifetime

UnReal tracks the behind-the-scenes drama of the production of a Bachelor-esque reality show. The pilot established a satirical tone and brisk pace, both of which can be hard to maintain. There’s always the danger that satire can devolve into facile mockery. A fast pace can give the illusion of momentum that allows a show to quickly gloss over its holes.

Fortunately, the second episode indicates that UnReal just may be worth sticking with. The action filters through central character Rachel Goldberg (a terrific Shiri Appleby). Rachel is a long-time line producer on “Everlasting” (UnReal’s show-within-a-show). After an emotional meltdown during production of the previous season, Rachel’s facing a lot of difficulties. She’s rather good at eliciting the reactions and footage from contestants the production needs, even if her ability to sympathetically manipulate the contestants generates some understandable self-loathing.

Quinn (an equally fantastic Constance Zimmer), the executive producer, leverages Rachel’s legal troubles to get her back on the job. Rachel’s co-workers are often less than enthused to have her around. And she often seems like she’d rather be anywhere else. But she often gets caught up in the rush of the production. And that’s the hook for viewers.

That reality TV is highly staged and manipulated is no surprise to most people, including the genre’s fans. There’s some real drama and genuine fun to be mined from that process. UnReal manages to tap that vein quite effectively. Seeing the production team craft stories on the fly and then prod the contestants to fulfill the narrative is quite fascinating. Seeing them adjust on the fly when events don’t unfold the way they expect adds an involving element of unpredictability. In the second episode, after their obvious villain was a surprise early elimination, Rachel and Quinn co-opt another contestant’s personal tragedy to concoct a “crazy bitch” arc that’s almost entirely opposite reality.

Image provided by imdb/Lifetime

Reality TV detractors probably take that as smug validation of their disdain for the genre. But UnReal has a lot more compassion for its characters than that. The show manages to work in moments of genuine humanity. Rachel’s ambivalence plays out convincingly, even as the writing hints at the addictive quality of the power the producers come to wield over the contestants. An ongoing subtext is the tension between concocting a story to entertain viewers at the emotional expense of real people, not all of whom are prepared for the toll the process takes.

UnReal also doesn’t pull punches in some straightforward acknowledgements of reality TV truths. In the premiere, Quinn declared that one of the black women couldn’t be positioned prominently early on because “America is racist.” In the second episode, viewers saw Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the only African-American on the production team, pull aside the two black women in the cast and urge them to embrace stereotypes for camera time (citing notorious reality TV staples Omarosa and NeNe Leakes for inspiration). Adam (Freddie Stroma), the British hotel chain heir cast as the “suitor,” admits to Rachel he only agreed to do the show to promote his new hotel venture. Those kind of blunt truth bombs serve the show well and add some realism to an, well, unreal situation.

The unfolding saga of producing a season of reality TV is the real draw here. UnReal only skids when it delves too much into the personal issues and romantic entanglements of the producers. With how fresh and propulsive the scenes devoted to crafting the show-within-a-show are, that kind of standard issue soap plot can’t help but pale in comparison.

But those moments are a small part of UnReal. Judging by the first two episodes, the show is on-track to be an interesting, guilty-pleasure ride that might just have some interesting things to say about the state of modern TV.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 10, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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