TV Review: ‘UnREAL’ – Essential Viewing With Undeniable Pizazz

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150307-unrealPreston Barta // Features Editor

UnREAL
Creators: Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Freddie Stroma, Johanna Braddy, Genevieve Buechner, Brennan Elliott, Bonita Friedericy, Nathalie Kelley, Josh Kelly and Ashley Scott

Perhaps you’re one of the many who are guilty of watching shows like THE BACHELOR and BACHELORETTE. And, perhaps you know there is little truth within them. Cat fights and casual sex are some of the many ingredients that make up the juicy and artificial flavor of reality television. This is where UnREAL comes in– Lifetime’s new series that serves up a cynical but “real” glimpse inside this very world.

Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s award-winning independent short titled SEQUIN RAZE, UnREAL takes audiences behind the scenes of a fictional dating-competition show called EVERLASTING, where producers are not shy when it comes to manipulating contestants and lying to get the vital dramatic and outrageous footage they need.

What Shaprio and co-creator/writer Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) give audiences is a humorous yet riveting look at what happens in unscripted television, where being a contestant can be brutal and producing it is a whole other reality.

I know what you may be thinking– Lifetime, right? Wherever your expectations may lie, UnREAL is a darker effort than Lifetime’s typical fare, especially tonight’s series opener. Whew! It has more flash and pizazz than you might think, nearly tiptoeing into HBO territory.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer star as Rachel and Quinn in UnREAL. Photo courtesy of Lifetime Television.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer star as Rachel and Quinn in UnREAL. Photo courtesy of Lifetime Television.

The pilot takes off on the perfect tart note, where Quinn (a terrific Constance Zimmer), an executive producer of EVERLASTING, yells at producers for picking a black woman as the first one to meet the show’s bachelor star (Freddie Stroma). If you’ve seen THE BACHELOR and/or BACHELORETTE, you may have noticed that African-American contests rarely advance far into the show. “It’s not my fault America is racist,” Quinn yells. This is one of the many truths UnREAL picks at.

Quinn sticks to what works and what sells, no matter the cost and who she may hurt in the path to success. Zimmer (ENTOURAGE) brings great energy to the role, causing viewers to ponder how much further Quinn will push people to their limits.

Shiri Appleby (GIRLS) proficiently executes her role as a producer whose job is to manipulate the contestants for the sake of “good television.” Her character, Rachel, is a women’s studies major, so she knows what’s she doing– but you can see the toll it is taking on her. She’s great at her job and she hates that she is. There’s so much depth to her, as you will see in the first episode.

After watching the show, you may question how “real” UnREAL is? So many crazy things happen in its hour-long block, yet every bit of it seems authentic.

UnREAL is lifted by its legitimacy, sharp and smart writing, and engaging characters and performances. If the rest of the season mirrors tonight’s pilot, we’re in for another damn good piece of entertainment.

UnREAL premieres tonight on Lifetime at 10pm/9c.

Our interview with Constance Zimmer, Shiri Appleby, Freddie Stroma, and co-creators Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon:

0:35 – The art of a good interview
1:40 – Its premise and signing on
2:15 – Why Lifetime was the right home for UnREAL
5:04 – How being a part of the show has changed their perspective of the industry
8:23 – How Shapiro and Noxon’s relationship formed
9:34 – Favorite guilty pleasure TV shows
13:52 – If they could teach a college course

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.