Constance Zimmer

UnREAL is the type of show you can hardly believe didn’t make it to air much, much sooner. After all, the show it’s spoofing—ABC’s The Bachelor—has been on the air since 2002, and will launch its 20th season in early 2016. It’s hard to qualify UnREAL as a satire given the importance of recency in satire and the fact that a cutting take on a reality dating competition is no less than a decade behind the curve. The Bachelor has already been lampooned many times, between the Burning Love web series, the second season of The Joe Schmo Show, VH1’s Flavor Of Love (and the many tentacles that grew out of it), and a bunch of others I’m having trouble conjuring up at the moment. Hell, between its trashy spin-offs, the defunct Bachelor Pad and more recent Bachelor In Paradise, The Bachelor has lampooned itself pretty thoroughly. On paper, UnREAL sounds inessential.

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Despite the many reasons UnREAL probably shouldn’t work, it does so effortlessly and confidently. Or perhaps I should say it could work that well. “Return” is a classic example of a functional pilot, one that mostly serves the purpose of selling the premise, introducing the characters, and getting the audience invested in the idea of watching more of the show. But it’s probably not an episode anyone will look back on fondly as UnREAL matures. The staleness of the premise is the show’s biggest hurdle, after all, and given how much of the world building and expositional heavy lifting falls on the pilot, “Return” is limited in its efficacy. But there’s such a caustic charm and cleverness about “Return,” it carries the promise of a phenomenal show. Specifically, UnREAL carries the promise of a phenomenal nighttime soap opera, one that can dive right into soap cliche without seeming like its doing so by virtue of its meta-fictional varnish. The show’s premise allows it to bear down on the gas in a way even the most adrenalized nighttime soap never could without seeming cheesy.

Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) works as a producer on Everlasting, a Bachelor facsimile in every way. UnREAL’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, is a former Bachelor staffer who Lifetime paired with Buffy The Vampire Slayer alumna Marti Noxon to develop the show, so it comes as no surprise the show is so unabashed in its attempts to replicate that show’s sausage-making protocols. UnREAL has it all: the limousines from which gorgeous women in form-fitting garments spill forth like tramps from a clown car; the token black contestant marked for death the instant she appears on screen; the insistence on keeping around the most unstable contestants, even if the lucky beau has to be prodded into doing so.

Reality television productions are high-stress environments that create adversity to elicit heightened emotional responses from their contestants. But Rachel isn’t just tasked with engineering these kinds of responses, she also has to do her best to ensure she avoids having her own nervous breakdown while she faces just as much pressure and enjoys as little privacy as the contestants she wrangles. As “Return” reveals in its final moments, Rachel nearly spoiled a season of Everlasting by drunkenly wandering into one of the final scenes and telling a contestant she was the runner-up before Prince Charming could break the news. Now she’s at the whim of her pragmatic-to-a-fault boss Quinn (a totally game Constance Zimmer), while she attempts to keep it together around her ex-boyfriend and his new fiancee, co-workers with which she must interact on a daily basis when the days are 18 hours long. While that sounds like a summary of the series, it’s also essentially the plot of “Return,” in which not a lot actually happens aside from the graceful dissemination of the information necessary to invest in the show. One of the most interesting aspects of watching UnREAL progress will be seeing how it’s plotted on an episodic basis, given how its on-camera stories and behind-the-scenes stories are so tightly intertwined just by virtue of the show’s premise.

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The episode is full of life thanks in large part to the performances from Zimmer and Appleby. Appleby is an actress to whom I’ve been indifferent for many years. I caught bits and pieces of Life Unexpected, and I recall thinking she was fine but not much else. My only other recollection of her, having never seen Roswell, was seeing her in Swimfan, a film with which I’m ashamed to be strangely in love. But I have to give it up to her, she’s pretty fantastic as Rachel. Appleby tends to be slightly affectless, even as her most emotive, so she’s well-served by the role of a woman who wishes she was exceptionally good at any other job than hers. I’ve certainly never seen her be as effective as she is in the scene where she struggles to get Brittany, Quinn’s chosen bitch archetype, to cry after she’s ousted by Adam, the designated available hottie of this season of Everlasting. Rachel is the embodiment of resignation. It’s obvious she can’t stand doing this, but she has no other choice, and it’s always been fun at anything, even manipulating people to make a television show.

Stray observations:

  • Quinn’s affair with Chet is already the plotline I’m least interested in.
  • The sad thing about the community service switcheroo is that I’d be production assistants on reality shows end up doing far more humiliating things than that.

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