Lifetime’s unREAL is a perfect show because every character on it is a monster. Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is our antihero, a lowly-yet-genius producer on the Bachelor-style reality TV competition, our show-within-the-show, Everlasting. Quinn (Constance Zimmer) is our second antihero; she’s an executive producer who should be credited as a creator, and a side piece who should be credited as a wife. Together, Rachel and Quinn spend the season destroying each other’s relationships and becoming closer with every move, whether they intend to or not. It’s a love story.
Chet (Craig Bierko), the guy who keeps Quinn on the sidelines in every respect, is our third antihero: the untalented-yet-charismatic douchebag who pushes everyone just close enough to the horrific reality TV sun to make them shine. Adam (Freddie Stroma) is our fourth antihero: the bachelor himself, a good looking guy with everything and nothing to lose. Every female contestant is an antihero, too, and so are the producers who play and get played by them. Everyone is an antihero with an endless string of hyphens to describe their character. They always save the day, but they fuck up an entire lifetime in doing so.
This post will contain soft spoilers, because it is an explanation of why unREAL’s first season is so excellent. In order to demonstrate that, it’s necessary to harp on the details. This show thrives in harmonizing specificity: Sia’s Chandelier playing as the ‘MILF’ contestant who’s going off her meds dances with her own reflection, Perfume Genius’ song, Take Me Home playing as the characters cling to each other to deal with a suicide, and Rachel looking Quinn in the eyes to say “I love you,” in the finale, which is, perhaps, the only true love found in a show that focuses on a romantic competition.
When we talk about unREAL, we can’t help but talk about the romantic competition’s place in our culture. As the Bachelorette prepares to enter its 20th season with spunky-yet-vulnerable JoJo as its leading lady (“from Ben to 26 new men,” its promo teases), we prepare to watch a woman have her revenge. That’s what the show sells us, right? On the Bachelor, we look for our heroine. Who will she be? How will she be jilted just enough to be the chosen one? On unREAL, Rachel is our eternal bachelorette: doomed to live in the confines of the dating competition, with several men around her vying for her body, work, and heart. She’s been burned, we see, and for this reason, we want her to burn the whole show down.
But the Bachelorette and the Bachelor can’t satisfy our appetite for justice, revenge, or true love. They can only tease it, showing us the courtship and the beginnings of a relationship, never really showing us what happens after the cameras turn off, when the love begins to congeal into something else. unREAL gives us what we want: an Everlasting bond amongst a crew and a cast, the revenge sought by jilted lovers and comrades, and the truest love between two women who always think the other deserves better than the hands they’ve been dealt by the men around them. In a plastic reality-TV dominated space, unREAL is more real than anything on air.