When UnREAL, Lifetime’s show placed on the set of a Bachelor-esque show, launched, it was lauded for its wholly real depiction of the behind-the-scenes machinations the producers of reality television shows take part in to make the most captivating television possible. But as the series went on, it became less about the specific ways reality television is made, and more a portrait of what happens when a dozen or so people people all want something for themselves, and will do anything to get it.
The show’s creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon, have consistently made it clear they wanted UnREAL to be like Breaking Bad, a program with brief moments of hope, where you’d feel like characters could make good decisions, but they just never would. In writing Monday night’s finale, they certainly made their vision a reality: it featured one manipulation after another, as producer and lead character Rachel (Shiri Appleby) thought she’d get her happy ending running away with Everlasting star Adam, only to find out Adam has dumped her. In a twist, Rachel then teamed up with her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) to get Adam left at the altar, but then found that Quinn was the reason Adam broke it off with her in the first place. That’s not to mention Jeremy, Rachel’s very nice, on-again, off-again boyfriend, who pretended to propose to her in front of Everlasting’s cast and crew, before calling her out for sleeping with Adam.
And that was just the finale—every episode of the first season of UnREAL has been a complicated web of lies, as each character attempts to use the people around them for their own gain. “See the thing is, Rachel, you’re a manipulating slut, and you’d happily manipulate me,” contestant Grace says in a moment of true clarity, after Rachel tries her darndest to play the “friend” card and get Grace to do what she wants.
There have been moments when these machinations have fallen short of “reality.” As the show has pushed what (hopefully!) actually happens between producers and their contestants, plot lines have stretched past the limits of what we can feasibly believe. The suicide of Everlasting contestant Mary in the middle of the season felt like it was too much; how realistic was it to have a woman take her own life because her medication had been tampered with by a producer? But considering the way shows like The Bachelor have coped with the deaths of people in their “family,” the speed at which Everlasting’s producers moved on because “the show must go on” was disturbingly true to life. The end result was the same, whether the drama of how we got there felt quite accurate.
But real success of the show isn’t based on how much it stacks up against its reality television counterparts, but how boldly Shapiro and Noxon have created their two lead anti-heroes: you spend most of the show subconsciously rooting for Rachel and Quinn, a set of awful people, to get their awful things to work out for them. When Quinn’s attempts to fuck over her on-again, off-again fiancé/Everlasting producer Chet fail because he’s banded together with the show psychologist and the intern who he fooled around on Quinn with, you can’t wait to see her figure out how to rise above their manipulations—so much so that you forget it was Quinn who was wrongly trying to paint Chet as a rapist.
It’s Rachel and Quinn, ultimately, who are the couple you root for—not Rachel and Adam, or Rachel and Jeremy, or Quinn and Chet. You want them to work out their issues; theirs is the actual romance of a show about a show about romance. “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s real here,” Adam tells Rachel during one of their heartfelt chats. But honestly, Adam, who cares about you? He’s a pawn in Rachel and Quinn’s game, and they’re the ones who know how to play. It’s their scenes that are the most mesmerizing: watching Quinn screw over Rachel in order to keep her around, dependent on her. Watching Rachel try to figure out whether Quinn actually cares for her. Watching the two of them be incredibly good at their jobs, no matter how terrible those jobs are.
As this season of Everlasting progressed, even the weak characters learned how to manipulate. The last scene of the finale features Jeremy, the formerly hapless nice guy, going to Rachel’s mom, telling her he’s worried about Rachel’s mental state again. He should be, but you know he’s not genuinely worried—he’s trying to get back at Rachel for what she’s done to him. I wouldn’t bet on him though; in a battle against Rachel and Quinn, who ultimately always find themselves on the same side, Chet always loses, the network executives always lose—even the intern with her newfound balls of steel is no match for this dream team. It’s rich to hear Jeremy say to Rachel, “You know how I always used to say, ‘The show’s bad for you, and it brings out the ugliness in you?’ I was wrong Rach. It’s you that’s ugly,” when you know he’s becoming no better than her, morally. He just isn’t as good at playing the game.
UnREAL is full of complicated plot twists, and sometimes, it seemed to stretch past the limits of believability. But a byproduct of those complications is how it showed us that no one is wholly manipulable—everyone has some power, weak or strong, to do their worst on the people around them. Is this true to life? Well, how real do we want our television anyway? If we wanted real life, we’d be watching the closest we can get to truth on film: a well-done documentary. But even that’s just one angle, a few parts of the story. For however messy it got, UnREAL has been willing to show every angle, from every lens. In the end, though, you still know there’s something else you’re not seeing.
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Image via Lifetime