Shiri Appleby and Johanna Braddy in UnREAL (Lifetime)

TV

Why UnREAL is the best – and most feminist - TV show of the summer

It’s slim pickings for TV fans in July and August but new US drama UnREAL, which brilliantly skewers reality TV, is one you can’t miss. Here's why

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By Sarah Hughes on

1 Because it’s a very smart and extremely funny look at the sort of reality TV shows we secretly (and not so secretly) love

Set behind the scenes of Everlasting, a fictional dating competition show with a strong resemblance to real-life reality juggernaut The Bachelor, UnREAL depicts a world in which desperate producers such as nominal heroine Rachel manipulate naïve contestants for the sake of ratings and career advancement. “We set out to ask the question is there really no harm in this entertainment?” explains co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. “I don’t completely condemn reality TV because I think our fascination with other people can be a good thing but there’s also a really high incidence of eating disorders, mental disorders and suicide in reality TV contestants. We wanted to look at why that might be.”

2 Because Shapiro really knows what she’s talking about

Shapiro, who co-wrote the show with former Buffy The Vampire Slayer producer Marti Noxon, worked on The Bachelor and admits the experience was unpleasant. “I began to get physically sick,” she says. “There are people who have a great time on these shows – they love the travel and the friends they make – but I started out as a feminist filmmaker and I just realised that I couldn’t justify working on a show where I was constantly manipulating other people, especially women.” 

3 Because anti-heroines Quinn and Rachel are real women with flaws

Yes, executive producer Quinn might pressurise her underlings to constantly ramp up the drama and yes, the likeable Rachel is extremely good at manipulating the truth for the sake of a storyline but they’re also complex, three-dimensional women.  “It’s important no one is simply a villainess because that would have been lazy Disney-style evil,” says Shapiro. “Take Quinn, she started out as a PA and was really smart and really talented but the problem is she can only get so far. She’s ambitious, smart and savvy – if she was a guy she’d be a millionaire.”

4 Because it’s more interested in its characters' working lives than their love lives

One of the main plotlines on the show centres around the fact Quinn came up with the idea for Everlasting but her on-off lover Chet has taken all the credit. “I find work dynamics really potent,” says Shapiro. “Large parts of my career in this industry were super-frustrating and I wanted to address that, to look at what it’s like to watch some lazy, arrogant guy take all the credit for your work.”

5 Because it hates the game but not the players

It might be brutally funny but UnREAL never condescends to its fictional contestants or producers, preferring instead to create a world of shifting alliances in which people are capable of doing bad things for good reasons – and vice versa. “We wanted this to be a show where women could be flawed,” Shapiro explains. “To ask the question why does it feel good for Rachel to humiliate the prom queen and why do we react as we do? We’re not making fun of reality TV shows; we’re asking what is the appeal and why?”

6 Because it’s a truly feminist drama

“We put Rachel in a ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt on purpose,” admits Shapiro. “Writing a show in which the women aren’t just girlfriends or best friends or mothers with a fully formed and complicated anti-heroine was the most feminist thing we could have done.”

UnREAL is on Lifetime on Tuesdays at 10pm. Until then, take a look at the trailer below:

Shiri Appleby and Johanna Braddy in UnREAL (Lifetime)
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