Wednesday, June 8, 2016

MTVP So Cal Summer 2016: UnREAL 1.01: "Return"

“It is not my fault that America’s racist, people!”

For our summer theme this year, we’re kicking it 2000 MTV-style with So Cal Summer. Get ready to pretend you’re ditching on Mission Beach, because we’ll be covering three shows set in Southern California: “UnREAL,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “The LA Complex.” First up is Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” which tells the story behind-the-scenes of a “Bachelor”-like show called “Everlasting.” We follow the misadventures of Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a talented producer who found herself in legal trouble after a meltdown during the last season finale. Because she’s so good at what she does, executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer, aka Rosalind on S.H.I.E.L.D.) blackmails her into returning to work. The suitor for this season is British hotel heir Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), and the ladies vying for his attention fit into all the stereotypes (or, to be more accurate, encouraged to fit the stereotypes) of all the characters you would usually see on a dating reality show.

I am an avid “Bachelor”/”Bachelorette”/”Bachelor in Paradise” fan. I first got hooked on the franchise while watching it with my roommate in college. We had deep breakfast conversations about whether or not we had any right to be disappointed that Jenn Scheft chose no one, since she is a human being after all. While I believe that my college roommate, as a married mother of two, has mostly moved on from the show, I still watch it. An episode with a glass of wine on a Monday night is my guilty pleasure. Therefore I appreciate “UnREAL’s” rather dark, edgy take on what really happens behind the scenes of such a show. While I am (fairly) sure “UnREAL” is exaggerated, there are definitely things that happen on the show that I could see as not being that far from the truth. I’m also impressed at how well the creative team recreates the details central to any season of “The Bachelor(ette).”

Right from the pilot episode, the creative team skewers its real life counterpart on multiple occasions. The show pulls no punches in showing how unglamorous filming a reality dating competition can be. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out on this point. A limo of women has been held up indefinitely while Rachel tries to talk to Adam, who is having cold feet about appearing in the show. The women desperately want to be let of the limo because they really have to pee, but the very young PA who has been assigned to their limo keeps saying “no.” Eventually, they just open the limo door, go outside, and start peeing on the ground. And making fun of one poor woman who makes different personal grooming choices.

“UnREAL” also really delves into the significant amount of psychological manipulation that goes into producing a reality dating competition. They have a psychologist (I think?) on staff, but her job isn’t really to look after the mental health of the participants. Her job is to dig up dirt and feed it to the producers so that it can be used to create more drama. There are two examples of this just In the pilot alone. First, Rachel is fed information about how Mary, an older (for the show) divorcée and mother was pretty badly abused by her now ex-husband. This leads Rachel to stress to Mary how Adam will “keep her safe.” Later in the episode, Rachel needs to coax Britney, who was going to be the villain of the season but was dismissed by Adam, into having an on-camera melt down. The psychologist tells Rachel that Britney had a rough time growing up in the foster system, and Rachel makes her start crying by telling her she must feel like she’s unlovable. Rachel feels terrible about herself afterwards, but she does it.

The Everlasting production team works very hard to make the women all fit into particular roles, and we see that process start in the pilot. There’s Faith, the devout Christian virgin from Texas who competes in rodeos. She catches a lot of flack from the other women for not being very girly. Of course the production team really wants her to tell Adam she’s a virgin as soon as possible, and the plan is a disaster. I already mentioned Mary, who gets the title of “desperate MILF.” She’s got a daughter and a scary abusive ex. Then there’s Britney, who was well on her way to being cast as the villain after grabbing Adam’s ass during their introduction and making fun of Faith. Adam, because he really doesn’t like being controlled by the producers and is only on the show for image rehab purposes (he wants to launch a hotel, but he had a scandal recently involving some hookers), decides to let Britney go and keep Faith around, and the production team has to scramble to figure out new storyline ideas for the season. There’s also Grace the Brazilian swimsuit model, who Quinn wanted to be “wifey” material, but Grace has other ideas. She an Adam sleep together the very first night of filming.

Of course, there is also plenty of drama among the crew. First up, there’s a bit of a love triangle. Rachel was sleeping with cameraman Jeremy when she had her meltdown during the previous season, and they have since broken up. Jeremy doesn’t seem especially thrilled that she’s back. Furthermore, he has gotten back together with his ex, Lizzie, and they are now engaged. Rachel’s just a little perturbed by this. And there’s the matter of Quinn sleeping with Chet, the really gross, often high creator of the show. There’s also a bit of a professional rivalry going on between Rachel and Shia, another producer who had to try and clean up the mess after Rachel’s meltdown. As much as she tries, though, Shia just isn’t as good at the job as Rachel. Which is probably a good thing, because the job really entails being a master manipulator. Shia really resents Rachel being invited back to the show and taking all the best contestants. She completely messes up her attempt to get Faith to reveal her virginity to Adam. Tying a couple of these plots together, there’s a big scene where Shia shows Lizzie the footage of Rachel’s meltdown. Clearly the stage has been set for the most dramatic season of a fictionalized account of a dating reality competition ever!

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