NEW YORK — “UnREAL” might be TV’s most fully realized reality series. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s scripted, then performed by professional actors.
Premiering at 10 p.m. Monday on Lifetime, “UnREAL” arrives with what just might be perfect timing. The reality genre is cooling off (yet still embarrassing itself) as reality-based networks scramble to shore up their schedules with scripted dramas and comedies, which is the kind of fare that makes no false claims of authenticity and whose version of the truth is seen by all as invention.
“UnREAL” dwells in the off-camera netherworld of a dating competition show called “Everlasting,” where a handsome bachelor must choose among a bevy of hot, hopeful women each bucking for a fairytale wedding. (Sound familiar?)
The week-to-week production process is anything but romantic. On the contrary, it’s a callous game of bullying and illusion whose sole objective is outrageous narratives. That process of seduction is led by executive producer Quinn King (played by Constance Zimmer, “House of Cards”), a single-minded puppetmaster whose chief henchman is Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby, “Girls”), a young producer whose task is to cajole, badger and play on the weaknesses of the show’s participants to get the footage Quinn demands.
“Rachel gets the best sound bites and she has killer instincts for drama,” says Quinn as she plays on Rachel’s many weaknesses to keep her in line.
Although “UnREAL” pushes certain moments to dramatic extremes, everything you see is based on reality-show reality, says co-creator Marti Noxon (who also created Bravo’s fictional-yet-all-too-true hit “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” and wrote for WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).
“We thought uncovering the behind-the-scenes machinations would make great stories,” she says, “and we wanted to comment on the kind of bully culture of a lot of reality television.”
“UnREAL,” therefore, is not a spoof of reality TV. Rather, it’s a straight-ahead workplace comedy-drama populated with flawed, three-dimensional characters. There are no villains here, just people — under-the-gun producers and on-the-make contestants — who in the worst way want to score in the sordid world of make-believe they call “reality.”
“Contestants come in and think they can beat the game, but it’s truly an unbeatable game,” says Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (director-writer of the SXSW-winning film “Sequin Raze,” a black comedy about a reality dating show), who created and produces “UnREAL” with Noxon. “You’re ritually manipulated and charmed and edited beyond your control. Viewers think the contestants knew what they had signed up for. But they couldn’t have. There’s no way.”
The game is fixed and the matchmaking premise is only a pretext. On “UnREAL,” the hunky “suitor” is seeking, no, not a soul mate, but TV-sparked publicity to lure investors for his new hotel project. And in an unguarded moment, one of the contestants confides her real goal: “I just want people to know my name, so when I open my hair shop there’ll be a line around the block.”
Participants sign on expecting a payoff for pretending to be themselves. What they don’t understand (until too late): They are pawns in the “Everlasting” chess game, with Quinn, in her video-paneled master control, pronouncing which contestant is the designated villainess, which is the hot one, which ones are boring and should be bounced.
“Viewers want to believe in fairy tales, and those reality shows tap into that want,” says Shapiro. “Our show dismantles that want.”
“I think our show will entice viewers to watch reality in a different way,” says Noxon, “but I don’t think they’re going to stop. There’s a suspension of disbelief by many viewers.”
Both women have done quite a lot of thinking about the implications of a dating-competition show, and, despite identifying as “card-carrying feminists,” they readily own up to having been seduced by its charms.
“Watching one of those shows, at first I was laughing at the artifice and pretense,” says Noxon. “Then I got attached. And as it got toward the end I was feeling, ‘Oh, my God, I wish I could have someone like that.’ And he was a bonehead! It was amazing how caught up in it I got. And only later, I thought, ‘What was THAT all about?”’
The dizziness of reality TV imposed itself on the production of “UnREAL.” Shot in Vancouver, the series took over a sprawling estate (just as “The Bachelor” does), where confusion between real and un-real regularly reigned.
“We had background extras playing crew members, and real crew members,” says Shapiro. “We had fake craft service and real craft service. Fake outhouses and real outhouses.”
“You didn’t know when you were stepping into fiction or something that was really happening,” adds Noxon.
Where, indeed, is the great divide? That’s where “UnREAL” comes alive. It’s a series that exposes the real drama in people who, with nothing better to sell, try selling some unreal version of themselves as the real thing.