With UnREAL's first season finale Monday night, the Lifetime series - a hard-nosed look at the behind-the-scenes world of romance porn "reality" shows like The Bachelor - confirmed what I'd long hoped and suspected: there is a central romance at the heart of UnREAL, a true love as aspirational as any princess fantasy peddled by UnREAL's fictional series Everlasting. But this romance isn't between Everlasting's suitor, Adam (Freddie Stroma), and any of the contestants. It's not between Adam and our cynical, guilt-ridden producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby), whose innate empathy makes her "scary good" at manipulating people and situations into juicy television. It's not between Rachel and the puppy-eyed nice guy cinematographer who loves her, Jeremy (Josh Kelly). And it's not between the remorseless force of nature showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Chet (Craig Bierko), the creator of Everlasting and a coke-addicted control freak with a penchant for track pants.
The real romance of UnREAL is between Quinn and Rachel. And it is fucking beautiful.
UnREAL was created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who two years ago wrote and directed a brilliant short called Sequin Raze based on her time working as a producer on The Bachelor. Sequin Raze is a really incisive, feminist short, and when I heard it would be adapted as a series on Lifetime, I was sold. But still, Lifetime. At best I thought it would be some riveting trash-TV, and I definitely don't have a problem with good trash-TV. But with UnREAL, Shapiro and Noxon have transcended the Lifetime model. It's trashy, sure, but only because the series it's skewering is trashy. UnREAL, on the other hand, is sharp, funny, moving and deeply empowering.
It follows Appleby's Rachel Goldberg, a woman moved by desperation to continue working for a show and an industry that are slowly consuming her soul. But it's more complicated than that, because Goldberg's no victim of circumstance. She's great at what she does, uniquely skilled at the art of producing - producing people, producing romance, producing just about anything other than her own messy life - and most of the time, she likes being great at it. Until, that is, her singular gift drives the women competing on Everlasting to debase themselves, fighting with one another, throwing themselves at Adam and worse, with at least one contestant going to a very, very dark place in her pursuit of a prince.
And then we have Zimmer as Quinn, who, after years in this business, is no longer burdened with a conscience about what they're doing here - if she ever was. She's tough as bricks, fast-talking, fast-moving, brooking not even one second of bullshit from her staff, her contestants or her lover. Sure, Chet's nothing but bullshit, but Quinn really does bring out the best in him; he's an idiot, but we can see how much better he wants to be for her. He's still nowhere near deserving Quinn, but no man really could. She's a foul-mouthed monarch, and Everlasting is her sordid little kingdom.
Quinn and Goldberg are the bedrock of UnREAL's success: Zimmer and Appleby give two tremendous, career-high performances. These two women aren't sweethearts, not even to each other; they battle it out with terrifying ferocity, but they know where they stand with one another, and they have unshakable respect for each other. Neither character is precisely like anything we've seen before, and so much of that must be credited to the writing, but the two performers give their characters such substance and power, such unbelievable strength yet vulnerability. These are real women, and UnREAL lives and dies by the actresses' ability to sell them as real. But they're not doing it alone.
Despite Everlasting's very deliberate appearances, none of the contestants are one note. In the premiere episode of both Everlasting's dozenth or so season and UnREAL's first, we think we've met the bitch, the slut, the smart girl, the sassy black lady, the virgin, the lunatic, the nice girl, the MILF, the wife. But UnREAL never lets us off as easy as Everlasting does: while the show within the show dismisses these women into their easy categories, UnREAL presents them as complicated, distinct, fully actualized people. Johanna Braddy's Anna is the nice girl, but she's nowhere near as naive as Everlasting would have us think. Yeah, Breeda Wool's Faith is a virgin, but the reason for that is a lot more complex than merely her southern Christian upbringing. Nathalie Kelley as Grace is a bombshell who gives Adam a beej the day after she meets him, but she's got a keenness and a barely hinted at tragic history that make her much more interesting.
Also more interesting than they appear are the men, but never in the right ways. As much romance, lust and even love are teased on UnREAL, there is one irrefutable fact that the finale hammers home: none of these men is trustworthy. None of them, even the nice guy, even the prince, deserves a shot at these brilliant, flawed, hard-ass women.
And that's where UnREAL stands alone. It isn't until the season finale that we even realize how secondary these sexual relationships really are. As an audience, we're lucky to have access to plenty of shows right now with tough, smart, many-sided women, but none of them gives the middle finger to romance like UnREAL - and how perfect is that, on a show about a show that hawks romance like a street vendor, convincing women across the world that they need it the way we need oxygen, the way we need food. The most powerful moment on UnREAL - and truly, on just about any show this season - takes place in the final minutes of Monday's finale, as two women say "I love you" to one another. These women - bitches, one might call them - just scorched the earth in a jaw-gaping, ass-kicking, idiot-reaming, total gender revolution of a finale, but the most important and rebellious thing they did in this last episode is say "I love you."
UnREAL will return next season, thank goodness, and in the meantime you can stream the entire first season for free on Lifetime. Do it.