For as long as this new age of television has existed, my one wish has been for some new show out there to embrace a female anti-hero for once. With all of my favorite shows of the last six to seven years, from Mad Men to Justified and Breaking Bad, the issue that fans have complained about consistently and routinely has been the inevitable role of the annoying wife or girlfriend, always the part written for the female lead, and even though that character has its defenders from people who watch it ("oh, but look what he's doing to her- she deserves to be pissed off, whiny, complaining about his nefarious activities"), I myself am not immune from the charge of finding these characters irritating. They are. I always wish the girl could be in on the crime, part of the action, just as devious and devil-may-care as the men are allowed to be.
So finally, what Lifetime of all networks has given us is an answer to my wish, in the form of not just one, but two complete, straight up anti-heroines on its new show UnReal, which follows the backstage and behind the scenes process that it takes to put on a popular reality show like The Bachelor. This is prime subject matter to finally be exposed, and the show is dark, twisted, soap operatic, and cynical beyond belief as we see just how soulless and manipulative reality TV producers are. Yes, to some extent we knew that already, but this show strips it bare and puts it all in your face, brought to you by the people who know, because they actually worked on those shows before. Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, two women with a history in reality television, have created a show within a show, that follows Rachel (Shiri Appleby), field producer in charge of rallying and putting together a season of Everlasting, which is The Bachelor in all but name, as she befriends, plots, schemes and consciously forces her female contestants into catfights, girls gone wild, real housewives-esque situations (imagine how bad it is on that show) in order to make "good tv." Rachel's good at her job because the girls believe her as she saddles up to each of them to further her end goal, which we don't always know until the end of an episode.
Shiri Appleby, once the teen star of Roswell, is fantastic in this part, because she has such an easygoing, casual, friendly, un-glamorous vibe about her- we see how likeable she is to everyone she's talking to, and we're never sure if she's acting or not as she goes about the business of destroying lives. She's not totally heartless, as the set-up of the show sees her coming back to work after a meltdown that had destroyed her conscience and placed her on meds and in therapy to pull herself together, but whether she feels bad about the various soul-sucking methods of her tabloid chasing series is always in doubt, because Appleby plays everything so seemingly genuine, and then suddenly all will be revealed as a ploy. Her nemesis/partner-in-crime on the show is Quinn King, Everlasting's executive producer played by Constance Zimmer, a twisted maternal figure for Rachel who trained her to do what she does, and is even more brazen and not stricken at all by anything required to place the show high in the ratings. Zimmer's fantastic as well, so boldly, unapologetically out for her own success and the mouth-watering public humiliation of the contestants that she tosses off one-liners and insults reminiscent of Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold of Entourage fame. And yet, the show takes pains to make her something resembling a human at times too, in the form of her love/hate relationship with the show's owner Chet (Craig Bierko), her married boyfriend of eight years who sometimes produces the show with her and parties with the contestants for maximum sleaze effect, yet still, underneath the immoral and disgusting personality, kind of does love Quinn and she him in their own, particularly evil way.
Not everything on the show is perfect, as the season long will they, won't they tease between Rachel and the show's British suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) and her ex-boyfriend, cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly) doesn't exactly make for the most compelling love triangle. Jeremy's a wet drip and Adam is a teflon guy, good at giving the producers what they want when they need it, but changes his mind so many times you can't really tell who he is underneath. Not to mention the fact that Rachel's manipulation of everyone around her extends to him as well, so it's hard to know whether we should even be investing in this so-called relationship at all. But everything else is sensational here, from the contestants, who are revealed to be more the victims of reality tv producers than willing participants who signed on to humiliate themselves on national television, and the various other field producers involved, who all compete amongst each other to see who can ruin more people's lives in the process of ascending the Hollywood stepladder.
This is revealing, insightful, entertaining and engrossing television, and the unabashed evilness of Rachel and Quinn finally give us females who don't give a fuck in their quest to grab the gold ring for themselves in the dark, demented and shallow world in which they live. I love it and I can't get enough- not only are these women antiheroes, but they're antiheroes not simply imitating the typical male antihero template. No, these ladies do bad stuff the way that women do bad stuff. Through manipulation, through lies, through the subtle control not just of these other women who they know how to make behave badly, but through men, who remain on top of the power ranks in Hollywood- Quinn makes the show successful, but Chet gets all the credit, while the suits at the network won't listen to her own ideas, so she must devise a way to get to the top through various other means. This is obviously written by women who know what they're talking about and how to make female characters complex and fascinating, even if they're basically bad people making their way through a dirty world. It's enough to reinvent Lifetime's image, if people will just give it a chance and take a look. It's worth it, you'll be hooked right off the bat.