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The first half of season one
POSTED 11:50am | 09 JULY 2015
UnREAL is a show that came out of nowhere for me. I hadn't heard anything about it before seeing the premiere episode, wasn't aware of the premise, and didn't know who the creative team behind it was. It was just through the process of eliminating new TV shows from my watchlist that I stumbled upon this one. The first ten minutes I was struggling to figure out what it was all about - the tone, the plot, the characters, the setting. I wasn't sure what UnREAL was trying to be. It's not that it was necessarily bad - just different to everything I'd seen before. It started with a lot of threads up in the air, almost scattered, which made it slightly confusing, but after that first ten minutes all those threads started to get pulled back in together, becoming an intricately woven ball by the end. After watching the first episode I knew I had seen one of the best constructed premiere episodes of modern television.

UnREAL is a drama set behind the scenes of a fictional reality show called "Everlasting" (a "The Bachelor" analogue) and follows the personal lives of the producers and crew of the show as they attempt to piece together episodes of television by manipulating the emotions of the contestants. Of course, the twist is that there is more real drama in the producer's lives than there is in the fake reality show, and each episode slowly unravels more of the characters as their personal lives spiral out of control.

The first season was given a ten episode order on the Lifetime channel and this half-season review covers the first five episodes.

The Everlasting Contestants, with Freddie Stroma as Adam Cromwell on the left

There are a number of reasons why this show shouldn't work, but the biggest is this: Lifetime is best known as a network for bad reality TV. Some kind of meta look at how the sausage of bad reality TV is made on a network known for bad reality TV doesn't inspire confidence. But UnREAL manages to rise above it all, thanks mainly to the mercurial lead performance of Shiri Appleby (Roswell), who plays one of the lead producers on Everlasting: Rachel Goldberg.

Rachel starts the season as a broken women, caught in a trap of her own making, worn down by everything she's had to endure. The problem is that she is brilliant at her job and can't find a way to safely escape. Her job, of course, is to manipulate the contestants into behaving in a way that benefits the show - essentially making people feel the same way she feels all the time. It's not played as the typical "bad guy with regrets" character. The beauty of UnREAL and all of its characters is that they're all fully fleshed out, complex, complicated people, and the whole cast, Appleby especially, are able to capture the nuance, heartbreak, and vulnerability with the slightest twitch of an eyelid, grimace, or glassy stare.

Over the first five episodes we see bits and pieces of Rachel slowly teased out through the barrage of moments when she has to switch off her morals and ethics in order to do her job, but we still don't truly see what her end game could possibly be. There's a moment in episode three between Rachel and her ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Josh Kelly from One Life to Live), who also happens to be a cameraman on Everlasting, where he makes the observation that she "wouldn't be here if she didn't like the taste of blood", which goes to the heart of who Rachel (might) really be: a shark that has to keep on swimming just to survive.

Rachael & Jeremy

The first half of the season is dedicated to developing the stories and characters of head producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer from House of Cards, Entourage), creator and executive producer Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko from The Thirteenth Floor, Cinderella Man, The Long Kiss Goodnight), and the leading bachelor "The Suitor" Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma from the last three Harry Potter films). Each of these characters are setup in the premiere episode as archetypes and possible antagonists to Rachel: Chet is the rich, womanising, drug-addled, absent executive producer; Quinn is the ruthless and demanding queen bitch who pushes everyone to their limits to get what she needs for the show each week; Adam is the British faux-royal heir to a family fortune looking for "love" on a reality dating show in order to rebuild his tattered profile. But as each episode passes we get deeper insight into these characters and what drives them, and what soon becomes clear is that they are ALL trapped, just like Rachel.

UnREAL has a shallow veneer of a soap opera wrapped inside the tired show-within-a-show setup, but it plays out like a horror movie: The cast are all cursed; the house is haunted; or they're all stuck in purgatory living out the same mistakes every day as punishment. It hits all the beats, and strikes the same atmosphere, as a slasher movie, right down to the (figurative, reality tv) murder of a contestant each week - just without the actual blood and death. I can't help but think this is deliberate when I know that UnREAL credits Marti Noxon (Buffy, Angel, Point Pleasant) as one of its creators. She's helped bring a deep, dark, psychological edge to the story and characters. Adding weight to the story is co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who actually started as a producer on the real The Bachelor. You can't help but think there are large chunks of autobiography in each episode. Maybe the Rachel character is a thinly veiled fictional Shapiro? At the very least she has probably lifted many situations from the real set of The Bachelor, so the series is much more a withering critique of the reality TV industry than a love letter. On top of the strong creative team and excellent casting group UnREAL also snagged TV music rising star Fil Eisler (Revenge) as series composer. His score informs much of the horror vibe - it's full of dark, minor chords; echoing piano; deep strings. It's a classic case of music elevating atmosphere and strengthening story beats.

Constance Zimmer as Quinn King

This first half of the season has been a near-flawless example of how to construct a drama based around a house of cards that is constantly on the verge of collapse. The simmering chemistry between Rachel and Adam is just one ingredient short of exploding. I'm keen to see whether the end of this season lives up to the promise of the first five episodes, or whether all the threads that are slowly coming together fail to meet and the whole thing unravels into a mess. Either way, I'm hooked.

Watch list: Addicted