(This article contains spoilers for the first season of UnReal, which is now available to watch on Hulu.)
It's a beautiful day in the English countryside. Two shell-shocked women sit together in a garden. Finally, one speaks, voice cracking with defeat and exhaustion. "We killed someone, didn't we?"
An awful, heavy moment passes. "Yeah," the other finally says. "Let's not do that again." They sink back into their seats, eyes glassing over, and accept the awful truth.
This brief but incredibly powerful moment is what the new drama UnReal had been working toward all season (which wrapped up in August 2015). The show's central characters are brilliant at coaxing people into doing terrible things, but this is the moment when they let themselves feel the weight of their sadistic actions, and it's more painful than they can bear.
This moment was also brought to you by Lifetime.
Yes, that Lifetime.
Lifetime makes for an unlikely — but effective — ally against clichés
Even in a time when basic cable packages come with hundreds of options, there are few more consistent channels than Lifetime. It has always gone after its target (female) demographic with a stacked schedule of romantic comedies, sitcom and soap reruns, and original movies that have spawned their own cults of worship, both ironic and deeply sincere.
Whether or not Lifetime actually knows women is up for debate. Its aforementioned slate of cheesy rom-coms and stereotypically catty women characters betrays a pretty retro vision of what women might like, after all. But the network's brand remains undeniably strong.
That reputation made UnReal's quality and ambition a real surprise. On the one hand, the show is a funhouse mirror–skewed look at ABC’s Bachelor franchise, which targets a similar demographic as Lifetime does. In the Venn diagram between ABC and Lifetime, "selling women cookie-cutter romantic fallacies" is the obvious overlap.
But UnReal’s portrayal of the fictional reality dating show Everlasting doesn’t shy away from exposing the ugly tactics that make fairy tales sparkle on screen. In fact, UnReal embraces the chaos with open arms. It takes pleasure in revealing just how cutthroat reality television can be in pursuit of a juicier story.
It helps that Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who co-created the show with Marti Noxon, of Glee and Buffy fame) has firsthand experience. Shapiro was trapped on The Bachelor for years due to a fine-print contractual bind, and as she produced the show's calculated romances, she found herself stuck between her self-professed feminist ideals and a job that very much cut against them.
Speaking to the New York Times, Shapiro referred to her experience producing segments with contestants as "tortur[ing] another woman." She said she was close to suicidal by the time she escaped The Bachelor's clutches: "I wanted to burn my whole life down."
So it's not exactly surprising that Shapiro and Noxon are gleefully burning any bridges they might have had in reality television with UnReal, which closed out its strong first season Monday, August 3 (the show has already been renewed). They have insisted that specific events on the show are fictional, but when Bachelor host Chris Harrison told Variety that UnReal is "really terrible," Noxon shot back in no uncertain terms. "Reality television deserved this treatment," she said, "and it’s long overdue."
UnReal wants you to know that making reality television can be exactly as soul-sucking as you think
The most daring aspect of UnReal, however, is how hard its main characters are to root for. As Shapiro told the Huffington Post, the writers chose to forget likability, and instead look to an unlikely source for inspiration: "We talk about Breaking Bad a lot in the writers' room. That's definitely something we aspire to — that kind of antihero, but for women."
While Shapiro admitted to MTV that she was surprised how enthusiastic Lifetime was about UnReal's darker tone, it's easy to see how "Breaking Bad starring women" enticed a cable network that's struggled to find a breakout scripted series. The harder — and more impressive — thing to understand is how UnReal’s storytelling managed to hit devastating truths by swapping out Walter White’s drug cartels and dusty deserts for the Technicolor charade of reality dating shows.
UnReal follows producers’ meticulous attempts to create an idyllic fairy tale out of reality dating show Everlasting. Executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) runs a tight and brutal ship. She eyes contestants for possible story angles, labeling each with familiar reality show clichés like "wifey material" and "the bitch." She offers her producers cash bonuses if they can push the vulnerable contestants into nudity and/or 911 calls. She halts production with an exasperated sigh when the first contestant to emerge from her Cinderella carriage is black. "What?" she scoffs when her team raises a collective eyebrow. "It’s not my fault America’s racist."
Quinn leans the hardest on Rachel (Shiri Appleby), her second in command. Quinn and Rachel make an efficient, if morally horrifying, team. They prey on weakness, pinpointing the spot where someone's particularly raw and stabbing it with a calculated remark. When Quinn throws out a scenario like, say, manipulating a contestant into showing vulnerability by exploiting her PTSD, Rachel only hesitates for a second before turning on the charm. Every so often they'll assure each other — and themselves — that the contestants knew what they were signing up for, but as we get to know the reality show's stars, it becomes clear that they had no idea. By all rights, both Quinn and Rachel should seem like monsters.
The first time we see Rachel, though, she’s lying on the floor of a limo, staring up at the glam contestants with dead eyes. Her shirt reads, "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like." And Rachel believes it. Sure, she’s a hardened Everlasting veteran, and yeah, she’s made a few women cry on command in her day, but as long as she insists she's not happy to be there, she can get through another day with some of her conscience intact.
The only problem with that logic is that Rachel loves this job.
Real antiheroes love their terrible deeds
Whatever terrible things Quinn and Rachel do in the name of fake romance, the reason they stand out in a crowded field of morally bankrupt television characters is that they take pleasure in this shady work. Quinn is definitely more upfront about it, her stern face collapsing into a grin whenever a contestant breaks down on camera.
Rachel, on the other hand, is a more complicated case. In the pilot, she's only come back to Everlasting after a nervous breakdown because Quinn's blackmailing her into staying. Rachel says she hates this job, and protests when she thinks the two are about to cross the line — but she always crosses it.
At first it looks like this is just the blackmail's doing (a totally relatable problem), but over the course of the 10-episode season, viewers watch as Rachel tries and fails to resist playing puppet master. Getting people to do what she wants, no matter how despicable, is just too satisfying to give up. In the finale, Quinn and Rachel join forces to wreak unholy revenge to electrifying results. Much like Breaking Bad's reliance on Walter and Jesse's relationship, Quinn and Rachel's deeply twisted and yet deeply loving partnership is the backbone of the series.
The term "antihero" has become so ubiquitous that it's almost lost all meaning, but this combination of doing terrible things and feeling little remorse is key. Even if there's inner conflict, the Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos of television would rather find something to relish in their evildoing than think too hard about the consequences. Quinn certainly qualifies under this rubric, but Rachel's transformation from reluctant mercenary to willful assassin is what makes her story so compelling.
Rachel insists she's better than the show she works for at the same time she gets a rush from prodding yet another picture-perfect cast member into doing something gross. She even gets off on it. She watches with a smile as the carnage of her emotional blackmail unfolds. Her whispered orders to Everlasting's suitor start sounding less like that of a producer to a reality show star than a dominatrix to her submissive.
At the end of one episode, she and Quinn sit down at the end of a long day, share a cigarette, and watch a vicious catfight they set in motion. Quinn takes a drag and sighs, "Now that's good television." To Lifetime's credit, she's right.
UnReal's first season is available on Hulu, on Lifetime's website, and for digital download.