If you had told me that I would fall flat-on-my-ass in love with original programming from Lifetime, well, I would sooner have believed that I would win the lottery. Lifetime has done something unexpected by offering us unREAL, starring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer. I like Zimmer a lot anyway but did not know Appleby before. The two together make the show. Some of Zimmer’s dialogue is a bit over the top but she pulls off even the witchiest of bitchiest. I read somewhere that the role was originally slated to be played by Megyn Price but I cannot imagine anyone in the role but Zimmer.
Appleby as Rachel, though, is a revelation: Tough, vulnerable, strong but put time and again into compromising positions that challenge her conscience. Even with the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding Rachel at every turn in her work, this is not a preachy, moralizing show. Instead it explores the grey areas of human relationships and manipulations and the extremes people are willing to push themselves to. And asks at what cost – and can a person come back from the edge? Can they really feel or trust again after certain soul-crushing experiences? What better place to do this than a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look at the backstage machinations of a reality show like The Bachelor? It’s dark but not devoid of human emotion. People all live in grey zones. It’s people being ruthless even though they do, on some level, seem to care about each other. But wouldn’t it be easy to go full-on cynical after living in this world populated by artifice? In fact because the show is deeply human, it skewers without ever turning into a parody.
As often happens, I came to the unREAL game a bit late – the entire first season was over by the time I watched (all the better to binge on, my dear). I’d read glowing reviews and heard the accolades but the Lifetime stigma and the one-sentence premise about a reality-show setting screamed, “No!” I gave in, though, and I am beyond glad that I did. Let’s free ourselves from bias – creativity can come from anywhere!
Apart from showering the stars with praise – richly deserved because they breathe the life and humanity into this show – the real thanks should go to the show’s co-creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who made the brilliant Sequin Raze, the inspiration for unREAL, and the prolific Marti Noxon, a TV veteran and apparently a fellow baking aficionado who owns a flour mill. How can I not be in love with these women? (I am.)
It sounds pretty cheesy, but the long-heard Lifetime tagline, “Television for Women”, has always been condescending and limiting, but I think they finally got it right here. Television for, by and about women that should engage and entertain everyone.