The truth about reality shows - from new drama UnREAL

“I think it’s about time that somebody pulled back the curtain on reality TV. There are too many of these shows now and people should be aware – the reality is not that pretty.” Actress Constance Zimmer (above right, with co-star Shiri Appleb
“I think it’s about time that somebody pulled back the curtain on reality TV. There are too many of these shows now and people should be aware – the reality is not that pretty.” Actress Constance Zimmer (above right, with co-star Shiri Appleby), who plays a ratings-obsessed boss in Unreal -- PHOTO: LIFETIMEPHOTO: LIFETIME

Satirical TV drama Unreal wants to give viewers the lowdown on how much manipulation goes on in reality TV shows

You would be a fool to believe everything you see on "unscripted" reality television shows such as The Bachelor, where female contestants compete for the affections of one eligible man.

And even if you are sceptical to begin with, what goes on behind the scenes to manipulate the participants and audience may shock you, with producers often engineering situations to bring out the worst in everyone, all in the name of compelling TV.

That is the premise of Unreal, a satirical TV drama that stars Shiri Appleby (Roswell) and Constance Zimmer (House Of Cards) and premieres in Singapore tomorrow on Lifetime (StarHub TV Channel 514). It has garnered positive early reviews and was named one of the most exciting new series to watch at last week's Critics' Choice TV Awards.

Based on an award-winning 2013 short film by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, it is a workplace drama that imagines some of the more unsavoury things done by the women and men behind the curtain on reality shows.

Appleby plays Rachel, one of the producers on a Bachelor-type series called Everlasting, where women vie for the affections of a hunky suitor. Rachel's job is to cajole and bully them into doing what she wants, preying on their insecurities so they turn on one another or behave outrageously to avoid getting eliminated.

She is egged on by her ratings- obsessed boss Quinn (Zimmer), who knows all too well that the audience loves simplistic narratives that will typically cast one woman as "the villain", another as "the virgin" and yet another as "the slut".

Unreal was inspired by Shapiro's own unhappy experiences working on the most popular of these shows, The Bachelor, which recently concluded its 19th season in the United States.

After nine seasons on the job, she says she, like the character Rachel, grew to hate both the show and herself for the things it forced her to do to the women.

She and co-creator Marti Noxon tell Life! at a press event in New York they want to shine a light on what dating and romance shows say about gender and workplace politics - in particular, how women treat one another and how the happily-ever-after fantasy can be damaging to both sexes.

Noxon, who has written and produced acclaimed series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), says no other drama has really probed how this successful reality TV format effectively "treats women as chattel and what it says about the relationship between men and women".

Shapiro notes that while many viewers do "assume that reality TV is staged, there is a total lack of understanding as to how".

On Unreal, the producers are shown consulting the psychiatrists who are often hired by reality series to come up with detailed psychological profiles of contestants. They then abuse this information to push the women - whom they also conspire to intoxicate and semi-starve - over the edge, leading to the meltdowns and confrontations that are a staple of these shows.

Zimmer, whose character Quinn masterminds many of these machinations, says the series is required viewing for both fans and detractors of reality TV.

"I think it's about time that somebody pulled back the curtain on reality TV. There are too many of these shows now and people should be aware - the reality is not that pretty."

But just how true to life are the dastardly deeds of the producers of Everlasting?

Shapiro and Noxon claim they imagined the more over-the-top details, which they swear are "not specific" to any one real-life show. However, they stress that the fictional scenarios were informed by their own extensive experience working behind the scenes in television.

"For me, nothing is quite beyond belief in terms of what happens on reality shows," Shapiro says.

What viewers can more easily see or imagine for themselves, though, is how damaging this type of television can be for the producers, participants and viewers alike.

"The bigger story that we wanted to tell was that even the women who produce this kind of fantasy about how love and relationships work also fall prey to the 'princess fantasy'," Noxon says.

"In our culture, even with all the changes going on between men and women, there's something so potent about that idea of being super-special, and then someone super-special finds you, and that's the end of the story.

"And it makes us all long for a kind of simplicity around love and relationships that isn't real, as much as we'd like it to be."

In their personal lives and troubled romances, Rachel and Quinn are not immune to this sort of thinking either, even though they are pulling the strings to create a fake version of the fantasy for their audience.

"They fall victim to the idea that there's one person who will 'fix' them, even though they know they've created this ridiculous situation on the show, with a guy who's dating so many girls and then must decide who he loves," Noxon says.

Then there are the contestants, whose pain is often all too palpable.

Referring to a scene in the pilot episode where a rejected contestant talks about being "unlovable" - a moment that could have been lifted straight from The Bachelor - Shapiro says "there's a scary, horrible thing that happens where the girls on those shows feel like they're not pretty or smart enough and that's why they get cut".

Noxon adds: "It always breaks my heart because they're living this out in front of millions of women. And I think we're all so indoctrinated to the idea that if we're not acceptable to a man, we're not acceptable at all."

Expectations such as these, which are perpetuated by dating shows, are unfair to men too.

"For guys, it's the pressure to not only be incredibly handsome but also have a private jet and plan romantic evenings," says Shapiro, referring to a typical date on The Bachelor.

For these reasons, Noxon feels a lot of reality TV is ultimately "dehumanising".

"There's this whole notion that there's this perfect man and this perfect woman and they meet and fall in love and then we're done. It's an antiquated notion and it feeds a part of us that loved our fairy tales, but we should probably look at it a little closer."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Unreal debuts today on Lifetime (StarHub TV Channel 514) at 9pm.