Guilty Pleasure: UnReal, the Fake Reality Show

UnReal Season One comes out on DVD (plus Digital HD) on January 26.03139823232280_z_unredclu
A very long time ago, before reality TV was called “unscripted,” before story producers tried to join the WGA to get the same respect from Hollywood as the rest of Hollywood, before it was a genre that got any respect at all, I met a reality TV producer at a party. At the time I was a young video producer, making the behind-the-scenes looks into films that you now see as bonus features on DVD’s and YouTube. I hated reality TV.

I asked her “How long do you think this fad will last?”

She laughed, even though I wasn’t kidding. “Forever, I hope. I need to pay my rent.”

The joke, obviously, was on me because that’s how I eventually paid my own rent. I have never enjoyed watching reality TV as most people think of it: dating shows and real housewives and Kardashians don’t interest me in the least. But on the few rarely-watched shows that I produced in some capacity, I was happy to take a paycheck, even if it meant working grueling days and overnights and dreaming in Avid tracks.

UnReal is a scripted series – let’s make that distinction very clear – that dramatizes the lives of the crew and cast involved in making a hit reality show. I was hooked after the first episode’s opening scene.

In a busy control room at the “Bachelor”-like mansion that is the set of the fake reality show “Everlasting,” the executive producer barks orders, the AD’s repeat her, the crew spins into action, and thus a new season of America’s favorite dating competition begins. Meanwhile, all the side-eye and wisecracking of the crew is the focus here, and that’s a world I lived in for not very long, but long enough that someone yelling “Speed!” makes me shut right up so I don’t ruin the take.

Now that reality TV is so entrenched in our culture, and thousands and thousands of shows have been produced since its beginnings, enough people have worked on, are working on, or know someone who is working on or has worked on a reality show that there’s a nice target audience built right in for UnReal. But the storytelling is strong and melodramatic enough that the series can be entertaining for any watcher, even those far removed from the weird subculture-within-a-subculture that is reality TV, or if you’re being precious about it, “unscripted.”

There are love triangles, cattiness, first-class manipulation, lack of sleep and meals of potato chips, diet soda, and booze. There are also story lines about mental illness and suicide, eating disorders, race, feminism, mortality, and unwanted sexual advances. Naturally. No show I ever worked on was as dramatic, but who wants to watch a true-to-life drama about producers locked into little rooms watching 36 hours of footage to find one  nugget of action that will make it on air? The truth is boring. UnReal is not.

The stars of UnReal are Rachel and Quinn, a field producer and her seasoned boss, who manipulate each other as hard as they work the contestants on their reality show. The best scenes in the entire first season include the ones in which Quinn coaxes the super-bitch out of Rachel, who still has enough of a conscience to make her the show’s relatable hero. “I need my dragon well-rested,” Quinn tells Rachel, as she takes her off the clock and sends her to bed.

There’s plenty of sex and partying, but I couldn’t help wondering how Rachel and other crew members managed to get in the mood, exhausted and stinking as they must have felt after back-to-back 16-hour days.

I guess it’s youth. And also, it’s not real. That’s what makes UnReal so delicious.

Season One
DVD – $26.98 from Lionsgate
January 26