This is how doctors must feel about Grey’s Anatomy.
I’ve been fielding questions about UnREAL, Lifetime’s new scripted series about a reality TV show, ever since its premiere. How realistic is it? Holy crap, is that what I do for a living? Do I love the show, or do I LOVE it?
For the uninitiated, UnREAL is about the behind-the-scenes machinations of Everlasting, a Bachelor-esque reality show. The protagonist Rachel is a producer who is amazing at the job she hates, which is essentially to manipulate the cast members into causing camera-worthy drama.
So, what exactly do I think about UnREAL? And what does it get right and wrong?
It’s Right About Some Things…
- It’s all fake. This is common knowledge now, right? Many reality shows are shot to follow predetermined story arcs, and footage is spliced and manipulated — usually to condense time and streamline dialogue.
- Bosses like Quinn. Quinn is super intense, always telling her producers to “get [her] an episode” (read: make some crazy shit go down, no matter how you may feel about it). I’ve, um…heard? Of this kind of boss? But I mean, I’ve never had one like that. Nope…*whistles, walks away*
- That control room tho. On a house-based reality show like this, the control room — where producers, the director, and executives watch all the camera feeds — is always set up in the garage, just like in the image above. I love working in the control room; it’s like being inside the show’s brain. And it’s air-conditioned.
- We get no sleep and dress like scrubs. Okay, not all of us. But I do. Can you blame me? Producers run around set for twelve to eighteen hours a day — style isn’t always a priority.
- The skills. Reality TV producers are like Swiss Army knives. As put in this Vulture piece: “The unique craft of reality field production […] combines the grifter’s ability to rapidly read a mark and gain trust with the director’s understanding of what constitutes good storytelling.” Throw in operations, budgeting, editing, writing, and project management, and you’ve got a snapshot of what I did on the daily.
(For a reality contestant fact-check, check out this interview with The Bachelor‘s Melissa Schreiber.)
…But It’s Wrong About Others.
- Producing is about trust. I don’t know why people hire Rachel. Producing is about building relationships and trust with cast members, which Rachel is great at…until she blatantly, unapologetically breaks their confidence. Word spreads; I doubt cast members would agree to work with her for long.
- The ethics. Oh my heavenly panda, the ethics on this show. First, the cash bonuses for producers who cause bad behavior on camera — no. Second, the show psychiatrist providing ammunition to use against the cast?! Uh, double no.
- The job isn’t everything. The producers on UnREAL are singularly career-focused and incredibly cutthroat as a result. Most of the folks I’ve worked with are ambitious and fascinating people — from foodies and giant science nerds to a coworker with an MA in French literature from Yale — who helped me understand my value, supported me as I pursued a promotion, and encouraged me to pursue projects outside of work.
- You don’t have to sell your soul. I mean, it helps. …Just kidding! You choose what shows you work on, and most producers I know choose to avoid working on highly manipulative shows.
- It can be REALLY fun. From Vulture: “What UnREAL misses, by virtue of being a drama, is the tremendous fun that reality production can be. [We] get to travel the world, meet fascinating people, and eat the leftovers of the world’s most talented chefs while we do it. Sometimes we actually befriend the cast members and stay in touch long after the show has wrapped. It’s not such a terrible gig.”
I don’t actually have a problem with UnREAL. I get that it’s satire, and it’s interesting to see my work world portrayed (however much fictionalized) on TV. My real issue is with how people are watching UnREAL.
People seem to love the show because it confirms their worst, most cynical ideas about reality TV production and producers. Take as an example this review from The Hollywood Reporter:
“The new Lifetime drama […] will validate every cynical thought we’ve ever had about reality TV. […] I believe every single thing the show tells viewers about what goes on behind the scenes.”
Or this piece in the New York Times:
“It airs on Mondays, at 10, just after The Bachelorette finishes on ABC. In concept, UnREAL is TV-show as remora, hoping to capitalize on lurid fascination with, and skepticism about, reality programming.”
It seems a bit Escher-esque that people are watching UnREAL to tear people down for tearing other people down. And as someone who has learned so much from working in reality TV, and who is part of a caring, great community in that industry, it bums me out that this show seems to exist solely for the cynics. I think the “lurid fascination” is understandable, but there’s a missed opportunity here.
The best reality TV — Top Chef, The Real World, The Last Alaskans — teaches you new things, challenges your perspective, and introduces you to new worlds. In that spirit, I wish that UnREAL‘s audience would ask to be challenged to see the good — the camaraderie, talent, resourcefulness, kindness, and fun of working in reality TV — as well as its scandalous shadow side.
The first four episodes of UnREAL are available online (at the time of this post, at least).
Image courtesy of A+E Networks.