Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: UnREAL

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Mondays at 10:00 PM on Lifetime

It's always fun to see a show come around and surprise everyone.  Such is the case with UnREAL, Lifetime's absolutely terrific new drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show.  The network is known more for its rinky-dink original movies than its television series, and the shows that it does have don't exactly generate much buzz outside of the mom circuit.  With that precedent, there was no reason to believe that this show would be any different.  Coupled with a premise that seems to have a very narrow appeal, and a trailer that doesn't really inspire interest, things didn't look so good for UnREAL.  Thankfully, those portentous signs didn't pan out, because this is one of the most enjoyable pilots of the last few television seasons.  It's the kind of show that makes me recall one of my favorite mantras: Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes.

I was reminded of another mantra I've been using while watching this pilot too.  That is, "Trust people who have made great TV before to make great TV again."  UnREAL is co-created by Marti Noxon, known primarily from her longtime work as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She gets a good amount of guff from Buffy fans for being responsible for the divisive-but-actually-great sixth season of that show, but it's hard to deny that she played a big part in making one of the greatest shows of all time, the good and the bad of it all.  Her gifts shown in her previous work shine throughout this pilot, so of course "Return" is a pretty funny episode of television.  It really gets the look and feel of shows like The Bachelor, including all of the ridiculous elements that come with it.  You have to know a genre well to effectively skewer it, and Noxon (who co-wrote the episode with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) seems to understand reality shows on a deep level.

But UnREAL succeeds because it's more than just a satire.  Between the moments of poking fun at reality shows, it's a straight-faced behind-the-scenes show, and an extremely compelling one at that.  There's a buzzy, chaotic energy that all the best of these kinds of series have contained within "Return."  The production behind Everlasting, the show's Bachelor stand-in, feels like a fully realized and sketched out world straight from the beginning.  It's populated by colorful, ruthless characters who bounce off of each other with a verve uncommon to pilots.  This isn't picking up on a reality show that's beginning its first season, or showing a new crew who's not used to working with one another, it's just about people in the middle of doing their business as they always have.

Our only point of entry is Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) whose first day on set is chronicled throughout "Return."  But even that's not straightforward.  She's not the fresh-faced new kid that you'd usually see centering this type of show; this is her return as an producer on Everlasting after an apparent nervous breakdown forced her to take a leave of absence.  That history she has with the other characters gives the pilot extra texture and tension.  Rachel is a fascinating character -- there's so much at stake for her, and Appleby completely sells the toll it's taking on her.

UnREAL is a very interesting look at the way producers like Rachel shave the edges off the contestants to the point where their personalities start to take on a totally different, more archetypal shape.  It's almost like an art to these people.  The right amount of pushing and cajoling can produce great TV, but it's also a delicate balance.  Push too much and everything topples over.  There's a sequence in the middle of the episode where we see Rachel prep each of the contestants on the show for their one-on-one with the bachelor that's absolutely masterful.  In it, we learn so much about the show's true aims, about the gap between who these people are and how they're presented, about the stakes for Rachel (this job could, quite literally, drive her mad).  It's really heartbreaking when we see a real, beautiful moment of emotion from a contestant get warped into something juicy for the viewers at home.

At one point, the show's cutthroat executive producer, Quinn (played by the always fun Constance Zimmer), talks about how hard it is to make a show without a villain.  Luckily, UnREAL itself is chock full of them, and they all happen to be the people pulling the strings to make this reality show.  All around, this is a confident and terrific pilot from what I hope to be an exciting, morally complicated series.  I never thought I'd have a season pass for a Lifetime show, but UnREAL is very much the genuine article.

Grade: A-

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