By Molly Freeman
Reality television may have seemed like a preposterous idea when it first began–with shows like The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother–but it has officially carved out its own spot in the weekly television schedule. Of course, reality television has roots in series from earlier decades, like 1948’s Candid Camera and 1965’s The Dating Game, but that’s a far cry from the shows we know today.
Now on television there are a variety of reality TV franchises (that’s right, not just series, but whole franchises). Certain ones follow the stars as they go about their daily lives, like The Real Housewives or Teen Mom, while others are more competitive, such as The Bachelor/The Bachelorette or the various talent competitions including The Voice.
Many of these shows have become staples of television, garnering high ratings and continuing into double-digit seasons. On most nights of the week, the singing competitions, survival races, and dating games win out over scripted television–whether on basic or cable networks.
However, there’s also a pervasive societal narrative that most, if not all of, reality television is incredibly fake, with producers or stars manipulating situations to increase drama. Certain series don’t even try to hide it. Kevin Hart, comedian and creator of Real Husbands of Hollywood, said of his production, “We call it the ‘fakest reality show ever.'”
Other series, though, maintain a facade of “real” relationships, drama, and twists, such as ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. These two series are meant to be about fairytale romance–one man or woman finding their life-long partner from roughly 30 possibilities.
While many of the seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette end in declarations of love and proposals of marriage, the show doesn’t have the best track record for creating long-lasting relationships. However, since the subsequent breakups tend to occur after the show has finished airing, they don’t really interfere with the franchise’s fairytale.
Although many viewers may understand the amount of manipulation that goes into the creation of The Bachelor and its spinoff, a new scripted television series delves into the behind-the-scenes goings of a similar reality dating show. Lifetime’s UnREAL tackles the glitz, glamor, and actual reality of reality television–albeit in a planned and scripted manner.
Created by Marti Noxon, a producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer among other series, and former Bachelor field producer Sarah Shapiro, UnREAL follows Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) a producer on the fictional reality dating competition Everlasting–following the same format as The Bachelor–who struggles with the immoral choices of her day-to-day life. For instance, in the second episode, Rachel withholds the knowledge of a major family emergency from one contestant and only reveals the information when it will create the best on-screen drama for Everlasting.
The show managed to receive critical acclaim even before it debuted and has since been picked up for a second season. Currently, UnREAL sits with a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a lower-but-still-good score of 78 on Metacritic.
The show’s popularity seems to arise from both honoring reality series like The Bachelor while also critiquing the manner in which those shows are made. As Jon Caramanica of The New York Times explained, UnREAL doesn’t exist to benefit from mocking reality television or act as an expose for what goes on behind the scenes. Instead, “UnREAL uses that access as a tool to ask questions about these sorts of programs: not just about how they operate–savagely, if its stories are to be believed–but also why participants on both sides of the camera subject themselves to them.”
As a result, UnREAL appeals to anyone fascinated by reality television. As Dalene Rovenstine of EW put it, “If you love The Bachelor, you’re going to like UnREAL. If you hate The Bachelor, you’re going to like UnREAL.” Of course, it might be true to take it a step further and say that UnREAL could appeal not just to viewers who watch The Bachelor, nor those who hate the whole concept of The Bachelor, but to anyone interested in good, dramatic television.
UnREAL manages to create a believable look at reality television while also establishing its own characters and drama separate–albeit influenced by–the show these people are producing. Even in more recent episodes, when the events of UnREAL become more and more unbelievable, viewers are drawn into the world of the show.
Like all television, UnREAL offers viewers a chance to escape their own lives for a single hour. But, while other shows may be merely popcorn entertainment, UnREAL makes its viewers question the way Hollywood creates reality television and what that says about those of us who tune in.