The Reality of UnREAL’s characters

I’m just as surprised as you are that one of the best new shows of the year is a Lifetime original. But here we are.

“UnREAL” takes a look behind the scenes of a “Bachelor”-esque show, and the twisting of reality to create reality TV. Our lead, Rachel, is a producer who swings anywhere on the spectrum of morality from questionable choices to downright manipulative all within a single moment of her day, guiding these girls and their “Prince” through the “romantic” process.

It’s a tricky line that actress Shiri Appleby walks: Rachel has no business being likable, and often crosses in Walter White-territory of “should I even be rooting for her?” But as the protagonist and lead anti-hero of “UnREAL,” she needs to stay engaging and engrossing. Don’t worry, she sticks the landing. “UnREAL” hinges on it.

(L to R) Shiri Appleby (“Rachel”) and  Constance Zimmer (“Quinn”)
(L to R) Shiri Appleby (“Rachel”) and Constance Zimmer (“Quinn”)

Between her and the woman literally running the show, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), a sort of unholy union is formed where only one thing matters: the advancement of their own desires.

What makes “UnREAL” such exhilarating television is that it depends so wholly on the full moral compass of its characters. Digging into the themes of what people want and what they are capable of to get that, the show isn’t afraid to wade in-between the white knights and gray areas, and get really dark.

It’s a stark differentiation to “Game of Thrones” which continues to simplify its characters as it draws them out of the book. Tyrion, a fan favorite, should’ve become the monster everyone expected him to be at the end of season four when he killed Shea. But instead the show wrote in reason after reason to keep him as their champion—and we see this pattern over and over again. Stannis, Ramsay, Ser Meryn Tant; the plot goes out of its way to establish behavior that reduces them to either good guy or bad guy.

Given that, it’s no wonder the show often struggles with shock factor to keep its audiences guessing. “UnREAL” isn’t perfect and delved into the same shock plot lines in the course of its first season, but for the most part it didn’t have to. The electricity of watching characters whose spine is so movable makes for thrilling enough television on its own.

The season ends with an unlikely pairing that should’ve always been the sure bet: Rachel and Quinn. They both know they’re not locked into their partnership, but they also know that they’ve always got each other’s best interests at heart (or something next to it, anyway). It’s an intoxicating dynamic. Now to see if they can keep us guessing.

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