Written by Matt Taylor
This past summer, I’ve reviewed Lifetime’s UnREAL – a critically acclaimed, Emmy nominated drama – on a weekly basis. I’ve practically live-tweeted each episode, and I’m constantly on the look out for someone to discuss it with… but I can’t find anyone. Despite being one of the best-reviewed shows on television, it seems like no one can be bothered to watch this series. Maybe it’s because it airs on Lifetime and not HBO or FX? Or maybe because the idea of a Bachelor spoof sounds unnecessary for some fans? Who knows?
I will admit that UnREAL‘s second season definitely found itself in somewhat of a sophomore slump. While the episodes were strong as individual hours of television, they definitely had problems when looked at as a whole. This was particularly clear when the writers rushed over character development to tie all the subplots together in the last hour. Furthermore, the final plot twist was definitely a bit over the top – I’m hoping the writers are ready to make the series a bit more realistic next year.
HOWEVER, these problems shouldn’t undermine some of the season’s strengths: the ensemble was better than ever, and the way the show develops its two leads is exemplary. And, even with a somewhat inconsistent second season, UnREAL deserves credit for being one of the only shows on television to explore social issues, without ever feeling too preachy.
With that in mind, here are five reasons to watch UnREAL – trust me, there are many more.
1. It’s the satire we need right now
Despite being on the air since 2002, The Bachelor seems more popular than ever now. Twitter has opened the door to the option of community viewing, with fans tuning in and taking to social media to vent their thoughts on the series. But The Bachelor has also ushered in some national conversations about slut shaming and the sexist double standard that men and women are held to on reality television, as well as life in general. UnREAL is aware of those conversations, and milks them for all the drama it can, satirizing the reality show from which it draws inspiration, but also trying to say something more serious. There’s a reason Chris Harrison, host of The Bachelor, has criticized the show so extensively: it calls out the series for the regressive themes it perpetuates, while still allowing viewers the chance to be entertained by the over the top drama and petty backstabbing that’s expected from reality series. UnREAL is, basically, the feminist, guilt-free version of The Bachelor: just as entertaining, but also thought provoking and well intentioned.
2. It contains two of television’s best performances
This year, the Emmys did right by nominating Constance Zimmer for her work on UnREAL. Despite technically being a supporting actress, Zimmer has become the unofficial face of the series, with much of the advertising campaign revolving around her. It’s not hard to see why. Her character, Quinn, is immensely quotable and entertaining to watch, dropping shockingly profane one-liners that push the limits to what’s allowed on a basic cable series. And Zimmer is perfect in the role, turning Quinn into a fascinating antagonist who we love to hate, only to let glimmers of humanity shine through to occasionally make us truly care about her. But let’s not forget her costar, the brilliant Shiri Appleby. Her character, Rachel, is one of the most compelling lead characters on television at the moment, and Appleby is the main reason for that. This season packed a lot of drama into the 10 episodes, and Appleby handled it like a professional, no matter how ridiculous the material was. Together, these two make a great pair, and deserve serious awards attention.
3. It’s possibly the funniest show on TV
With subplots about suicide, domestic violence, and police brutality, it’s easy to forget that, at its heart, UnREAL is a dark comedy. While the show certainly walks the tightrope between the two genres – a recent trend in television, it would seem – UnREAL succeeds in being a truly hilarious spoof of The Bachelor. But the show also serves as proof that a comedy can be funny and shocking, without resorting to mean-spirited jabs at real world tragedy (a la Family Guy). UnREAL is a genuinely funny show, and a surprising one too, but it’s never offensive, which is becoming all too rare on mainstream television.
4. It’s the closest we have to Breaking Bad on television today
Breaking Bad, one of the most beloved series of the Golden Age of Television, was the story of a man’s slow transformation into a criminal mastermind, who also drags a (relatively) innocent, younger man down there with him. Well, UnREAL is the feminine counterpart to that premise. Quinn is the ruthless television producer who realized long ago that she needs to be tough, cold-hearted and morally dubious to remain relevant in a male-dominated industry, and she’s slowly priming Rachel to take her place when she’s gone. Their relationship is not a healthy one, but it is a wildly entertaining one to watch, with much of the suspense coming from the question, “Just how bad will they become?” Anyone who found the drama of Breaking Bad compelling (and, don’t lie, there were a lot of you), will find this series just as entertaining. And, while they may not be drug dealers, their actions have a body count… and one that’s steadily rising with each season.
5. It’s progressive as f***
Unlike film, television is making great strides in terms of representation both onscreen and off, and UnREAL is one of the shows at the forefront. In the 20 episodes that have passed so far, it’s explored domestic violence, rape, race relations, and mental illness with sensitivity, while never undermining the importance of discussing these issues. It had one of the best coming-out subplots I’ve seen on television, but also has LGBT characters who are not defined by their sexual orientation; instead, it’s just a simple fact about them. It deals with male privilege, and white privilege and, of course, showcases a cast made up primarily of women, of all ages, races and sizes. And the representation extends behind the camera: a majority of the show’s writers and directors are women, a fact that Lifetime has showcased through some fascinating interviews that bookend the episodes. Anyone who wants to see more representation on television should definitely tune in.
There’s more great television right now than there ever has been before – a testament to the talented writers working in the industry, and the simple fact that there are more channels and streaming services to choose from. But don’t let UnREAL slip through the cracks. Lifetime is in the midst of rebranding itself from “the channel your mom watches” into an empire of feminist television, and I have a feeling that UnREAL will only be the first of many great shows to follow.
Catch up on the last two seasons (now streaming on Hulu). I expect you all to take part in the weekly conversation once it returns next June.