Chances are if you saw the premiere episode of the new Lifetime series, UnReal (Mondays at 10/9c), your mind is still fairly blown. Mine is. The show, a scripted drama about a reality television dating competition, is about as subversive a show I’ve ever seen on a major network. In it, Constance Zimmer plays Quinn, a hard-nosed producer, who is more or less blackmailing the sensitive-ish Rachel (Shiri Appleby) to field produce a show which very much resembles an actual popular reality television show that rhymes with Shme Shmachelor.
If one isn’t in the television industry, and the reality industrial complex in particular, it is likely one might not understand what field producing entails. In Rachel’s case, it means cynically manipulating the contestants to be increasingly outrageous with their behavior. To say reality television does not come off well is a vast understatement. UnReal exposes the deeply exploitative nature of what, for millions of viewers, is mindless television. Unlike, for instance, other shows like Aquarius or True Detective or House of Cards, which deal with darkness in areas viewers already perceive as dark (Manson; crime; politics), UnReal takes a subject hitherto thought benign and exposes the human suffering it causes. Then again, maybe I’m over-thinking it, so, on the eve of the premiere, I asked Constance and Shiri to discuss.
First of all, who at Lifetime greenlit this show? For a network that has a lot of reality television programs, this is like welcoming the enemy into its midst.
Constance: It’s actually a perfect fit for them. If it was on HBO it would be more expected. But because it is on Lifetime, it’s unexpected.
Shiri: Lifetime was looking to rebrand, and I think they are pretty proud of it. When we were making the show, we would say, “There’s no way they are going to let us shoot this!” Then we’d shoot it and we’d say, “There’s no way they are going to let us air it.” And then they’d air it.
Constance: Yeah, there’s some stuff I don’t even know if I’ll be comfortable watching.
Shiri, your character Rachel really seems to be struggling with her own morality and the actions she takes to create such dramatic moments on camera.
SA: That’s the drama. She’s really pained about what she has to do but she also happens to be really good at it.
Yes, the moral crux for the viewer is: Does it matter if someone feels an internal struggle about what they do even when they are committing immoral acts?
SA: That’s a good question. As I was playing Rachel, I had to find enjoyment in taking the characters down because how else are you going to do it? I think she enjoys it. There’s a high she gets off of it and then, when the high wears off, she feels remorse.
As Quinn, the producer, your internal struggle, if you are even having one, is much more hidden. Not even Rachel is immune to your manipulation.
CZ: Their relationship is really messed up: mother-daughter; mentor-mentee, dealer-addict. Quinn does, I think, struggle but I had to hold it off. I can’t show any kind of remorse because otherwise the people who work for me are going to ask “Are we doing something wrong?”
Shiri, your husband, chef Jon Shook, makes hands-down the best chicken sandwich in Los Angeles at his restaurant Son of a Gun. Did he ever do a reality show like this and, if so, did he give you any tips?
SA: [Laughs.] He did. It was called 2 Dudes Catering. He said the network tried to get him and his partner Vinny [Dotolo] to fight with each other but they would just lie on the ground and cover their heads so they couldn’t get footage. Those two actually like each other.
Have you gotten feedback from people in the industry yet?
CZ: Yes! We were at the upfronts recently and a previous contestant on the Bachelorette came up to us and said, "This is so close it is terrifying.” To hear that is intense for us as actors.
SA: When we premiered at South by Southwest, there was a girl who got up in a Q&A and said, “I was Rachel and you guys nailed that world. And I just got out.” She said it like “I got out of jail.” It gives me goose bumps.
CZ: Me too.
Do you think the show will be the nail in the coffin for reality shows like this, because it does expose them?
CZ: Honestly, I think even more people will watch reality shows. Now that they know what is behind it, you’ll be thinking, Oh, now I know how they do it!