Culture

'UnReal' Deliciously Skewers Reality TV

Biting satire from 'The Bachelor' alumna? I didn't believe it either.

By Shannon Rupp 4 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Before you dismiss the idea that a series about the backroom hijinx of a Bachelor-like reality TV show is the next Breaking Bad, let me remind you that no one thought a show about a high school chem teacher turned meth-making kingpin would make it past a single season.

I'm not really talking to you there; I'm talking to myself. It's easy to dismiss the new, and I nearly missed the new show UnReal because of a press release emphasizing its origins from the pen of a former Bachelor producer named Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. (Yawn.)

What they failed to mention is that these characters are straight out of Shakespeare at his most cynical, courtesy of co-creator Marti Noxon. She's a famous writer in the TV-verse: another talented alumna of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, who went on to produce some of the small screen's biggest hits.

Noxon has a knack for writing feminine versions of Hamlet and Othello -- tragically flawed heroes who struggle against their own nature -- and her fingerprints are all over shows like Mad Men and Grey's Anatomy.

UnReal star Shiri Appleby must be thanking her lucky stars for getting the role of Rachel Goldberg, a character unlike any female lead we've seen on TV. Her inner conflict arises from being talented at job she despises, rather than a hankering for a man she despises.

Woman, interrupted

Rachel is so psychologically scarred she's dangerous and she makes her fictional predecessors, like the dark-and-twisty Meredith Grey, look like a beacon of hope.

If you know Appleby at all, it's likely as a pleasant screen presence who was one of the stars of the cult hit about teen aliens, Roswell. She pops up regularly as a guest star on other shows and had a sweet but short-lived series called Life Unexpected. It was a rom-com about a couple of biological parents whose youthful mistake is now a teenager herself and comes looking for them.

Nothing in Appleby's resume suggests she could play Rachel Goldberg, who has a genius for manipulating people because she identifies with them. Each triumph leaves her both high on her success and sick with empathy for her victims. And it's making her crazy. Literally.

Since it's no fun being good at something you think is bad, we meet Rachel when she's just back to work at The Bachelor knock-off, Everlasting, after a psychological collapse that happened on camera. But even when she's nuts, her instincts for good television are perfect and she triggered a cast meltdown that, when edited for maximum humiliation, gave Everlasting its best ratings ever.

Rachel has been through the courts and is on probation for various crimes, including drunk driving, and the only person willing to hire her is Rachel's evil mentor, the hilariously over-the-top Quinn.

Constance Zimmer does a wonderful job delivering a Quinn who stops just short of being a comic book supervillain while at the same time conveying the comedy of evil. Everlasting's exec producer is so funny because she's so pragmatic about how this sausage factory packages the offal.

She compiles her reality characters from psychological profiles that will give her the heroes, villains, and conflicts necessary for an interesting narrative, with no thought to the impact on their lives. It's no secret that reality TV shows screen for extreme personalities, but Quinn's glee as she spots her potential bitch character -- a woman with a history that includes psych wards and foster care -- reminds us that this sort of entertainment is the crazy leading the crazy.

But it also reminds us they're not victims, they're volunteers. The contestants are nicely sketched out in the early episodes and they know what the show is about. As do we all, after 13 years of this sort of drek.

So for Quinn, the job is just how she uses her talent, not some crisis of conscience. As a performance, Zimmer is joy to watch because she's so clearly in control. Her yelling and her outrageous comments are all deliberate and part of a technique for managing her minions.

Zimmer conveys the idea that she sees Rachel's meltdown as her own failure and she won't let it happen twice. There are a number of scenes in which Quinn is like a dog handler, bringing the younger woman to heel. And Zimmer's un-conflicted enthusiasm for her job offers us a respite from Appleby's barely contained intensity, which threatens to explode into another spectacular breakdown any second now.

Edge of sanity

As an actor, I would have said Appleby belongs as the low-wattage rom-com lead, so perhaps the most surprising thing in this show is her subtle, often heart-breaking performance. You can feel her pain as she does a job she finds morally repugnant. Until suddenly something in her world brings out her inner sociopath: a sharp-eyed trickster who can read people as well as any grifter.

And that's when we see Appleby's Rachel isn't just sad, she's dangerous. Driven, relentless, and utterly in the moment.

We see Rachel waking up from what appears to be a nap in one of the equipment trucks, but then she scrapes out the last of some deodorant and smears it under her arms. Then she changes her underwear and we realize the jokes about her dressing like she's homeless aren't jokes. We learn she's not bathing when someone remarks on her dirty hair.

She's lost her sense of the rules, social and otherwise. She barges into the suitor character's hotel room without knocking. She sees him about to take a shower and so she strips off and joins him in a way that is clearly non-sexual -- she just needs a shower. His is handy; so she uses it.

She uses everyone and everything around her, making little distinction between people and objects. And she has no regard for consequences. Later, we see her driving somewhere --despite her suspended driver's license -- in a van she pinched from the set.

The feeling that Rachel is on the edge of madness makes her as unnerving to watch as she is fascinating. The producers know how to plant clues that will ratchet up the audience's anxiety as well as any thriller writer. And they keep the shocks and revelations coming.

In episode four we meet Rachel's Greek tragedy of a mother. Mimi Kuzyk plays a psychiatrist who has been treating and drugging her own family for years, diagnosing her daughter with a variety of mental illnesses in a sort of shrink's version of Munchhausen by proxy.

Mommy dearest tells Rachel how she learned her manipulation techniques and why she's so conflicted about them. Unfortunately, Rachel lacks the self-awareness to believe her, so she's just going to go on self-destructing for seasons to come (if we're lucky).

Despite a remarkable first four episodes, the show isn't picking up much of an audience, probably because of its surprising origins. It's produced by Lifetime, which is better known as the home of cheesy biopics like The Unauthorized Full House Story. And who expects clever, biting satire at the height of summer? Besides, I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who saw a mention of The Bachelor and thought, ''Yeah, I'd rather stick a fork in my eye than watch that.''

But UnReal is so beautifully made it's addictive. And if they get a second season and move it to winter programming, I think Rachel Goldberg's name will soon be uttered alongside Don Draper and Walter White.

It airs Monday nights on Showcase and you cord-cutters can find the first four episodes online at Lifetime Canada or on iTunes for about $20 for all 10 episodes.  [Tyee]

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