On June 1, Lifetime premiered a (surprisingly good?) scripted show called UnReal, which takes place behind the scenes of a competition dating series called “Everlasting” (a clear fictional stand-in for ABC’s The Bachelor and its ilk). The series is a scathing look at reality show production, and the lack of ethics that can drive the decisions to manipulate participants into making ratings-grabbing television. The “Everlasting” production team gathers in a control room and verbally rips apart the competing women (and the chosen bachelor), forcing them into stereotypes for the sake of the show, and placing odds on how long before they crack.
But then in walks Shiri Appleby as Rachel Goldberg, a former member of that production crew who is back after a very public breakdown that happened live on set. As Rachel, Appleby prowls around like an alley cat, defying anyone to focus for too long on the past. And yet, one of Appleby’s greatest strengths is that she always looks vulnerable, and a little sad.
It quickly becomes clear why Rachel is conflicted. The show’s executive producer, Quinn King (the great Constance Zimmer) has brought her protege back because she’s the very best. Rachel, as we see over and over again in the course of the show’s premiere, has the ability to get people to easily trust her; and through that, she manipulates them to whatever emotional point she needs. With a single mother (who is the oldest of the contestants), Rachel encourages her to be open about her daughter, and let the bachelor Adam (Freddie Stroma) really feel the full weight of possibly being a dad. Of course, Adam recoils immediately. It makes for great television. And Rachel looks ill.
Rachel has chosen to come back because it’s a job she excels in and makes good money doing. It just happens to be soul-eating stuff. By the end of the premiere, we know that Rachel’s breakdown was caused by a rebellion of conscience; she could no long play these games with people and act like they are dehumanized puppets. And yet, she’s come back.
Appleby makes Rachel not only very smart and capable, but also world-weary. The role is not (yet, at least) glamorous; Rachel dresses down and gives no thought to her hair or makeup — the polar opposite of the image-obsessed women on the show. She looks tired and haunted, and can snap from being a contestant’s best friend to turning to a PA and snarling at her, “you stupid bitch.” Rachel is UnReal’s anchor, and her dark performance makes the show dark, too. It’s also something that’s very different for Lifetime. There’s humor to UnReal, but there’s also a very real sense of pain and moral struggle.
There are two particular scenes, though, where Rachel is downright scary, and all of the credit belongs to Appleby. When a contestant, Britney, is cut from the show unexpectedly, she is ready to (smartly) walk off set without an exit interview. Quinn screams at someone to talk her down, and Rachel runs over to Britney and starts acting like she’s sick of the whole process, too. Maybe she is. There’s always a truth to Rachel’s performances, but they are not always immediately apparent. As the crew watches, curious, Rachel essentially deflates onto a lounge chair next to Britney, chatting with her in what seems like an honest and open way.
But soon, that conversation begins to become more pointed. As Rachel (somehow organically) starts asking Britney whether she’s ever felt like she’s not good enough to be loved (knowing her to be unstable, with a difficult upbringing), she is simultaneously snuggling up with a pillow on the lounge, as if the two are besties at a slumber party. Her questions tear into Britney, who starts crying, and then she sees a camera in the bushes. Horrified by Rachel’s betrayal, she screams at her and the crew, and Quinn rejoices at the footage of the meltdown they can now use. As Britney leaves, destroyed, Rachel flips back over on the lounge chair, and stares off into nothingness.
It’s the same cold, unfeeling look that she gives the camera feeds in the control room. Munching on a snack, she clicks “record” on a few of the live videos, catching the women in some of their most vulnerable moments. The images in front of her showcase sadness, pain, self-harm, and illicit sexual interludes, and she gazes upon them all without expression. But UnReal also makes clear that though Rachel chooses to immerse herself in this world, she’s not immune to it. Her breakdown proved that, as do a few comments she makes about wanting to change things.
What makes UnReal so fascinating is not just the jabs at reality programming, and the truth of its incredibly produced and prompted nature, but Rachel’s internal struggles. She has once again buried down the questionable nature of her actions, but it will come bubbling back up. In someone else’s hands, that may not come across as such a compelling battle, but Appleby perfectly conveys that mixture of dead-eyed sadness with glimmers of hope for change in Rachel. Or maybe that’s just what we’re manipulated to believe.
You can check out all the past choices for TV Performer of the Week here.