Shocking is just one of the many adjectives that describes UnREAL, a scripted TV drama that goes behind the scenes of a fictitious reality dating show called Everlasting.
Dark is another. And gritty, gripping and original.
There hasn’t been a show that discusses how “unreal” reality programming is until UnREAL.
Created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the series – that debuted on Lifetime channel last year – gives its audience insights into the nightmarish aspects of reality TV.
Shapiro has the street cred too: She worked as a producer on the actual reality show The Bachelor for nine seasons. Also, in 2013, she directed Sequin Raze – an independent short film that received an honourable mention at South By Southwest Film Festival – that became the basis for UnREAL.
Every character on this show is ambitious and self-serving, and they stop at nothing to achieve their ends: The creators of Everlasting demand ratings at all costs; the producers go all out to elicit drama from the contestants; the bachelor is desperate to win the prize; and the female contestants are hungry for the publicity and television exposure.
Love? Who has time for love in this dog-eat-dog world of celebrity and success – a place where human relationship takes a back seat to making a kill, career-wise.
At the top of that food chain are UnREAL’s two lead characters: Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), the cutthroat executive producer of Everlasting and, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) – Quinn’s right-hand woman/protégé and a complex, troubled woman who is ace at her job but has a chequered past.
Playing the part of Rachel, says Appleby, has been a challenge because of the “emotional roller coaster” the character is constantly put through. Having said that, Rachel is exactly the kind of role the 38-year-old covets.
“I love Rachel. I think she’s an incredibly complicated, deep and dark woman who has some light in her that’s buried deep inside. I liked her immediately,” shares Appleby over the phone, calling from her home in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband, chef and restauranteur Jon Shook, and their two children, Natalie, three, and Owen, who is just six months old.
“I saw something special in her. She is not focused on a man but her career and that’s the kind of role I am always interested in. I like to play characters that are unexpected … who take risks and to whom I have some kind of connection with,” adds Appleby, who is perhaps best known for her leading role on the sci-fi drama Roswell (1999 to 2002).
In the last few episodes of Season One, audiences saw Quinn displaying her masterful producing skills by messing up Rachel’s love life – you know, just to create that extra zinger for the already drama-filled finale of Everlasting.
Somehow, in the convoluted world of television, Rachel ends up falling for Adam, the bachelor aka the star of the show she is producing! So, while she’s manipulating the contestants into thinking they all have a shot with Adam, Rachel has been falling for him. Or at least she thinks she is. It’s complicated. They make plans to run away together but Adam ditches her last minute.
She finds out why: Quinn convinces Adam that Rachel is mentally unstable. And just like that, he bails.
Rachel is in tears. She feels betrayed. And livid. Confused as well, until she gets a life lesson from Quinn: Love, Quinn says, is not something you build your life around.
Lightbulb moment! The season ends with Quinn and Rachel scheming to take over the show.
“What do we have in store this season? Oh my goodness, what don’t we have in store? Rachel starts off as a showrunner but that quickly falls apart. Quinn takes the show back from her and, well, it is just off and running from there. The show has a different edge to it … it’s a new season of Everlasting with a new cast of contestants and a new suitor … the first black suitor. It’s going to be great,” states Appleby.
In last week’s Season Two premiere – on Astro’s Lifetime channel – it is obvious that the show hasn’t lost its spunk. Especially in tackling the tangle that exists between Rachel and Quinn, as the duo goes through different phases in their relationship – mentor-protégé, rivals, friends, confidantes and competitors.
“I think it’s great to see images of women who are different and not what we’re used to seeing on TV. These are women who are not concerned about getting married or at least that’s not what they are talking about. Their priority and main concern is work and their relationship with each other. Their lives are not solely based on men and I think that’s just great,” says Appleby.
Filming for Season Two is nearly done and though she isn’t giving anything else away, the Los Angeles-born actress mentions she’s thrilled UnREAL received the green light for a third season already.
“We were all on set today when we heard the news and we were so excited,” she gushes.
According to her, the series’ success has been gratifying, although quite unexpected. “I was surprised by the story and was drawn to it but I could have never guessed that it would go in the direction that it has. I was just really happy to work with such original and challenging material,” Appleby explains.
As we’re conversing, a baby can be heard over the phone, gurgling and cooing.
“I’m sorry, it’s my baby. I was just watching TV with my children,” she apologises when it’s brought up.
Filming the show can be exhausting, confesses Appleby. Thankfully though, shooting the 10-episode season takes just four months, leaving her enough time to be with her family.
“It is tiring because Rachel just goes through so much … but it helps that I have such a wonderful family to come home to. As soon as I walk through the door (at home), I try to leave it all behind and be present with my kids. They are my priority,” she says as Owen coos once again.