Johanna Brady, Nathalie Kelly

As with most television shows that strive to be mostly authentic, UnREAL is probably most appealing to those who know as little as possible about the world it’s portraying. I wouldn’t call myself a Bachelor super-fan, but I’ve watched the show nearly every year since 2010’s 14th season, so I’m now pretty familiar with the milieu UnREAL is toying with, and there are definitely some execution issues that bug me even as I understand it’s a fictionalized, serialized television show.

For one thing, I didn’t realize until “Mother” that Everlasting is supposedly being shot and edited simultaneously while the show airs in near real-time. When Rachel chopped Anna’s righteous fury over her father’s death into a crazy-bitch edit, my assumption, having watched enough Bachelor in my day, was that the footage was meant to be used as a promo or as a section of a “This season on…” supertease. In fact, that episode has already aired by the point at which “Mother” picks up.

UnREAL’s compression of the production process is a forgivable choice. The show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it was confined to watching the producers collect hours of footage that would be whittled down later, or watching them spend 18-hour days in the editing bay assembling that footage into a finished product. But by portraying the production of Everlasting this way, UnREAL is missing out on one of the juiciest dynamics of reality television trickery, the discomfort participants feel once they see the final product. There is explosive drama to be mined from those reactions, but UnREAL misses out on them by keeping its participants in the dark.

There’s also the matter of casting, which UnREAL doesn’t address or make mention of at all, even though any reality producer will attest to casting as the most important part of reality production. Casting is another aspect of the process that doesn’t lend itself well to a scripted show, but the fact that no one ever talks about casting is indicative of a deeper tonal issue with UnREAL. As much as I’ve been enjoying this show, there’s a smugness about it that I find off-putting, as if the reality dating show is an unsullied institution begging to be taken down a peg. Because UnREAL is squarely focused on how the sausage is made and the ugly specifics of how reality shows are filmed, it has to ignore all of the meticulous work that goes into pre-production.

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Were Everlasting a real show, this would clearly be the worst job of casting in its history. There’s a reason reality shows make would-be participants fill out massively long and detailed applications and go through a battery of interviews before they ever get in front of a camera. The onscreen drama is supposed to be a result of the foundational work conducted before the cameras start rolling. Of course, people are unpredictable and once you throw them into the environment, whatever happens, happens. That’s when producers like Rachel spring into action, steering the contestants in narratively satisfying directions even if the final story doesn’t reflect what actually happened. Everything Rachel does in UnREAL is the type of thing reality producers do to make their shows, but under ideal circumstances, they don’t have to work this hard because all the hard work was done up front. But UnREAL emphasizes Rachel as the magician of reality TV, and that’s why it seems so self-congratulatory at times. The show is not only revealing how the magic tricks are done, it seems to think it’s revealing the very existence of magic.

UnREAL is a drama though, not a spoof, so it mostly strives to explore the psychology of the people who do this type of work and explain why Rachel is so good at it. “Mother” does this by introducing us to Olive, Rachel’s overbearing, manipulative psychiatrist mom. It’s incredibly soon for the show to introduce Rachel’s parents considering they aren’t regulars and don’t appear to play a large role going forward, and “Mother” feels a bit premature. Its revelations come too soon while the audience is still trying to acclimate to the world of Everlasting. Not to mention, part of the “fun” of watching UnREAL is trying to suss out Rachel’s psychology for yourself, and “Mother” does all the work for you. The episode lands in a fascinating place, even though it’s all a bit too on-the-nose. Rachel learned her ability to manipulate people by finding their psychological weak spots from Olive, then Olive, a grossly unethical doctor who experiments on her own family, tried to convince her daughter the learned behavior was evidence of a psychological disorder.

Though “Mother” would work better as an episode had it been written with a bit more nuance, I don’t have a bad word to say about the mother-daughter scenes themselves, which are among the most emotionally gutting stuff the show has done yet. Shiri Appleby impresses me a little more every week, and she absolutely crushes her scenes in “Mother” opposite Mimi Kuzyk, capturing all the frustration and desperation Rachel is experiencing. Appleby is equally impressive against Constance Zimmer when Rachel returns to set and has to restore order after the tone-deaf Shia turns the house into a loud, boozy pool party resulting in unruly participants and unusable footage. Again, a bit of nuance might’ve helped: It makes sense that Rachel sees Quinn as a surrogate mother, who celebrates Rachel’s ability to manipulate people rather than shaming her for it, but it’s too tidy. And Quinn holding Rachel’s face in a vise grip feels over the top even for a character whose been defined by her complete lack of empathy. But the performances are almost enough to make up for the tonal miscues.

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Still, “Mother” is certainly the weakest episode of UnREAL so far, and the one that exposes the inconsistencies at the show’s core. While Rachel is off playing mind games with her mother and Quinn is attending to Chet after a cardiac event leaves him hospitalized, the Everlasting set is devolving into chaos under Shia’s direction. Adam’s friend Roger appears on the show to help Adam select the woman who will receive a day-long one-on-one date. Roger takes the opportunity to treat the Everlasting set as his personal candy shop, ultimately taking things too far with a fall-down drunk Maya after Shia tells Maya to slut it up in practically those exact words. Roger ultimately gets to make the decision as to which of three women—Grace, Anna, or Maya—Adam takes on the day-long date. By the time the lucky woman is revealed, Adam and Roger have engaged in fisticuffs over Roger’s boorish behavior (if not actual sexual assault) and the fact that Roger is an operative sent by Adam’s father. Instead of choosing Anna, as the card instructs him to, Adam chooses Maya for the one-on-one date after she’s all but certain she’s blown her chances.

It’s the second time in three episodes Adam has gone off-script, the first coming in the pilot when he chooses to send Brittany home, leaving Everlasting without its resident bitch character. It would be one thing if UnREAL was portraying Everlasting as case of Murphy’s Law at work, with Rachel and her colleagues trying their best to guide the participants into the story they want, only to find their subjects are wilier and more unpredictable than they anticipated. But that’s not what UnREAL is doing. This is more like the show wanting to have its fantasy suite and have sex in it too, portraying the producers as all-seeing and omnipotent unless there’s a need for them to not to be. In other words, the producers of UnREAL are manipulating the show’s characters in ways that don’t always feel authentic, a practice they seem to have strong feelings against.

Stray observations

  • The reveal of the letter in “Relapse” fizzled out in a hurry, didn’t it? Other than some slight embarrassment for Rachel and a brief flare-up between Jeremy and Lizzie, not much came of it.
  • I still don’t care much about Jeremy and Lizzie and I forget both of them exist while they’re off-screen.
  • “Sluts get cut,” says Quinn. No, they don’t. Everlasting is almost like a historical view of The Bachelor. The show still has a weird, puritanical view of sex and tries to dance around it whenever possible, but there have been several instances of women bedding the Bachelor long before they’re supposed to, and in most of those cases, they were clearly goaded into doing so by the producers in exactly the way UnREAL portrays. More often than not, the faster you jump into bed, the longer you stick around.
  • Speaking of reality inaccuracies, there’s no way in hell the fight between Grace and Anna would go down that way. Reality productions have gotten much more lax about violence between participants, but you can’t just slap someone across the face and get away with it. That scene would have been instantly flooded with security guards, and Grace would almost certainly get sent home. If there isn’t a lot said about this in next week’s episode, I’m going to have some major quibbles.
  • I need more from Quinn. I’d prefer an episode like “Mother” about Quinn instead, one that provides some context around why she is the way she is and what this job does for her other than pay her bills. The air of mystery works for Rachel, but when Quinn is talking about how great it would be if Anna is found in a puddle of bulimia vomit, I feel like that’s the person I need to know more about.
  • Speaking of Quinn, her affair with Chet isn’t under wraps after all.
  • Chet to Anna: “You’re the one with the dad, right? Well…” Classy!

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