UnReal Returns as the Series That’s More Real Than Real

By  · Published on June 7th, 2016

If it was any more meta the whole universe would implode.

UnReal is a show that is pretty much think-piece proof. It is the think piece. The fictional program, which just kicked off its second season, takes us behind the scenes of a reality series and unravels all its most interesting attributes so everything is laid bare. It is social commentary on not just reality TV and its production but the actual real world and its relationship to the warped mirror that is nonfiction television. And it does this blatantly but not heavily, in between the cracks of a superficially soapy drama about power struggles.

This is what happens when you’re being meta about something that is already very reflexive and knowing. Nonfiction entertainment, be it television or cinema, has always been on a subtextual level really about itself – its own existence and process. Sometimes it goes above and beyond, as with the new documentary Weiner, in which subject Anthony Weiner shows himself to be very doc-literate. Or with last year’s doc Finder’s Keepers, which sees one of its characters appear on a reality show and the layers go deeper and deeper.

UnReal reminds me of another doc: The Queen of Versailles. Both that 2012 film and this Peabody Award-winning Lifetime show look like total trash – the appealing kind – on the surface. They each can therefore easily draw in audiences who might not normally be interested in a compelling look at the cause and effect of the Great Recession and a wide-scale awakening from the American Dream or in a complex address of various social issues in the form of a politically incorrect cable TV program with a feminist point of view.

In “War,” the first episode of the new season of UnReal, the show already confronts sexism, racism, terrorism, domestic abuse, and the psychology of football – and confronts its characters’ own address of these issues. Most are hints or made light of in throwaway jokes, but they’re still pieces of what adds up to something that’s not so much thought provoking as thought relieving. Reality TV, specifically series like the show-within-the-show Everlasting and its inspiration, The Bachelor, are provocative. UnReal is the release of the tension caused by that provocation.

That isn’t to say UnReal isn’t just as exploitative as the thing it’s satirizing. The show isn’t a parody or an exaggerated mocking of reality TV. It pulls back the curtains and sets them on fire, but while it’s not exactly investigative docudrama, it is intended to show us a side of the industry based on what it’s truly like, by way of the experiences of co-creator and former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. To work, the series has to itself be a bit sexist, racist, and all around offensive, too.

Or at least feature characters who are those things. The characters of UnReal are almost uniformly unlikable people – though some of them we still root for. Here, though, we get to also roll our eyes or scold those characters by way of the two very important side characters Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Dr. Wagerstein (Amy Hill). Thanks to them, UnReal otherwise gets to have its cake and eat it, too. It can use “retarded” as an insult for a laugh but then also have Wagerstein remind us that’s not okay.

UnReal is about reality TV, as in the stuff we see on screen, and atop that it is about reality television, as in the production of that stuff. It’s also then about itself, because its own characters and storylines and dilemmas are lifted from how the production side works. Where Everlasting is supposed to be making history by having the first black suitor in a show of its sort, UnReal is the show actually making history by using that idea in a fictional setting. It may be fake, but so is reality TV, right? Either way it went there first. Not that it’s seriously historical or deserving of a medal. It just is what it is, smartly.

My favorite line in this week’s season premiere comes from Rachel (Shiri Appleby) when she’s speaking to potential Everlasting cast member (contestant?) Ruby (Denee Benton) about the importance of the show’s new season. She reminds her that Teen Mom led to a decrease in actual teen pregnancies and The Real World started the gay rights conversation. She doesn’t seem to believe what she’s even saying (ever), but she’s not totally out of line. She’s kind of just exaggerating statements that have a fair basis. In the one piece of dialogue she sums up UnReal and reality TV, both. It’s neither as significant nor as insignificant as we give them credit for being.

A lot of fans of UnReal are also fans of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and shows like them. I get the overlapping appeal, but the latter will always be too disgusting for me in involving real people, regardless of how fake or manipulated they may be. It’s easier to hate-watch fictionally awful people, which is one way to approach UnReal on a dual level of viewership alongside the love-watch of the series’ overarching judgment of those people and the genre and all of it. The backroom drama on UnReal is also a lot more interesting and entertaining than any of the repetitive junk we see from the “real” shows.

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Sometimes while watching UnReal I wonder why nobody has ever made a reality show focused on the making of a reality show, as in this exact series but not fictionalized. If it focused on the same kind of people, they would revel in it, with their self-importance and their righteous eye-rolling and their ironic place in the pit of it. Viewers would want to ask them, like the directors of Weiner ask a scandal-ridden Anthony Weiner in that film, why they agreed to take part in the documentary/series. The characters in UnReal would have the same response, at one point shrugging that they don’t know and at another point acknowledging the desire to show the whole truth, good and bad.

Shapiro is kind of the Weiner of UnReal in that she’s sort of the subject of her own show, as the basis for the Rachel character. But like Weiner, actually, it’s easy for them to be okay with what we see, in their own retrospect. For Shapiro, she’s rolling her eyes at herself rolling her eyes at the reality show she worked on. And both versions of her are also enjoying it unironically. That’s how we are to appreciate it, as well, entertained but judgmental but also judging of ourselves for enjoying, and so on loop de loop.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.