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7 Reasons You Should Be Watching "Unreal"

Lifetime's scripted satire of reality television is the sharpest, most entertaining series of the summer.

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1. It doesn't matter if you're a fan of The Bachelor or not.

Joseph Viles / Lifetime

For fans of The Bachelor (or The Bachelorette, or any number of similar reality dating competition series in which one person chooses from a bevy of eager suitors), Unreal is a fascinating (albeit fictionalized) peek behind the curtain. Though being intimately acquainted with The Bachelor surely gives viewers a unique perspective, it's not necessary in order to find Unreal captivating. Simply understanding the basic conventions of reality television is enough to enjoy the show — and to feel challenged by the complicated questions it raises.

That's an important distinction to make, especially given how steeped Unreal seems to be in the world of The Bachelor. (Or Everlasting, as the show-within-the-show is known.) But Unreal is more about the characters than it is the situation: There's plenty to latch onto even if you don't particularly appreciate the specifics. And the emotional blackmail and backstage manipulation of these characters is engaging regardless of the context. You don't have to have watched the show upon which Unreal is based to appreciate what these women are being put through.

2. It's bringing back the idea of "television for women."

James Dittiger / Lifetime

"Television for women" is, in many ways, an outdated concept — there's a reason Lifetime dropped that tagline in the '90s. And there's certainly no reason why men (even straight men!) can't enjoy Unreal. That having been said, there's still something significant about a series that puts so many women front and center. In contrast to The Bachelor — which, yes, features a large number of women — the female characters on Unreal resist easy characterization. As much as Everlasting would have you see them as types, they're far too complex and multifaceted to pin down. In fact, the more the producers try to contain them, the more their rich interior lives are revealed. That shouldn't be notable in 2015, but it is. While some shows can't even manage one fully realized female character, Unreal offers several — both in the contestants on Everlasting and in the women working behind the scenes. This is television by women (it was created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro), for women.

3. It embraces a subtler and more interesting kind of moral ambiguity.

James Dittiger / Lifetime

Everlasting producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) are, to varying extents, deeply flawed. They embody the kind of antiheroic qualities that made protagonists like Breaking Bad's Walter White and The Sopranos' Tony Soprano such tough sells. And because they are women and morally ambiguous in a much less confronting way, they're actually far more unique as characters — and ultimately, more challenging for viewers who aren't used to this particular form of bad behavior, especially among women.

It's not news that there is a double standard for how we view male and female characters: One need only look at the vastly different perceptions of Walt and Skyler White for a sense of how skewed things are. But Unreal takes audience assumptions of female characters and confronts them head-on. Rachel and Quinn, not to mention the Everlasting contestants themselves, do seriously fucked-up things in nearly every episode, but that makes them thrilling to watch, and finding sympathy for them a consistently rewarding challenge.

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4. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are delivering star-making performances.

Joseph Viles / Lifetime

To the WB generation, Shiri Appleby is Liz Parker, the human love interest of alien Max Evans (Jason Behr) on the sci-fi soap Roswell. (For CW fans, she was also the star of Life Unexpected.) Constance Zimmer did memorable work on Entourage, Boston Legal, and, most recently, House of Cards. Neither actor, however, has ever been as pitch-perfect as they are on Unreal. The show allows Appleby and Zimmer to display incredible range: Both vacillate between coldly calculating and disarmingly vulnerable.

Appleby in particular has long been underestimated, likely because she came to most people's attention as Roswell's answer to Bella Swan. Every time she has done something more complicated and, well, adult — her daring stint on Girls, for example — critics and viewers alike have expressed surprise. Hopefully by now we're past the point of "discovering" Appleby's talent. There's no denying that Rachel is the actor's greatest role yet, and hopefully, Appleby continues to earn accolades befitting her performance.

5. It's also a showcase for emerging talent.

James Dittiger / Lifetime

It's easy to single out a few of the exceptional actors, but the entire cast of Unreal is worthy of commendation. One of the benefits of the format — much like on The Bachelor, women are sent home each week — is that it allows one contestant to shine one episode and another the next. In the same way a reality competition shifts focus depending on which contestant is emerging as the frontrunner (or the villain), Unreal moves from character to character, revealing more backstory, both in terms of what the contestants are willing to show on-camera and what happens behind the scenes.

In the fifth episode, "Truth," Unreal put the spotlight on the heartbreaking Faith (Breeda Wool). From the beginning, Faith has been tough to watch: She's shy, awkward, and sexually inexperienced, which places her at odds with her fellow contestants. What viewers have come to learn — along with Rachel and the bachelor at the center of the series, Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma) — is that Faith's reticence to get physical with Adam has as much to do with her religious upbringing as it does with her same-sex attraction to her best friend. Wool expertly portrays the self-denial and repression that have brought Faith to this point — and her thwarted desire to come out is painful to watch. Like so many of the actors on Unreal, she's one to watch.

6. It's genuinely subversive in its treatment of gender and race.

James Dittiger / Lifetime

Shows like The Bachelor have long been criticized for their reductive and old-fashioned portrayal of gender relations. They've also been called out for their overwhelming whiteness: Contestants of color, who rarely last long, are few and far between. Because Unreal lives in this world, the series could have easily just followed suit. Instead, Unreal repeatedly draws attention to these issues. What is a show like Everlasting saying about gender and race? And how can the women and people of color who work on Everlasting perpetuate these stereotypes and still sleep at night?

Unreal doesn't have the answers: The question of catering to lowest-common-denominator viewers versus a moral obligation to fairly represent these women is an ongoing conundrum that Rachel especially grapples with. But what makes Unreal brilliant is its desire to engage with the stereotypes that plague the shows it satirizes. These women exist within the heinous virgin-whore dichotomy: Pure women like Faith are encouraged to give it up, while the "slutty" contestants are admonished for their dalliances. When it comes to race, Athena (Natasha Burnett) gets one of the most cutting subplots when she agrees to play up the stereotype of a black woman on reality television to avoid being sent home. These women sacrifice their identities and play into alarmingly outdated tropes just to be seen. Here, Unreal gives us perhaps its most searing indictment of The Bachelor and its ilk.

7. It's consistently surprising.

James Dittiger / Lifetime

For all its laudable elements, one of the best qualities of Unreal is its ability to keep viewers on their toes. From a storytelling perspective, it has already proved adept at avoiding the predictable route, in contrast to reality competitions in which the winner seems telegraphed from the get-go. In fact, this played out for viewers much as it did for Quinn in the pilot: Britney (Arielle Kebbel), who was poised to emerge as "the villain," was the first contestant voted off. All at once, Everlasting and Unreal lost a character that appeared central to their DNA.

This isn't Game of Thrones, of course, but there's something to be said for a much smaller story that makes unexpected diversions. Unreal's surprises don't just exist within Everlasting, of course. At first, it looked like Rachel might wind up back with her ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Josh Kelly) — and while they did fall back into bed together, he shut that down. Similarly, the sexual tension between Rachel and Adam has been clear since the pilot, but she refused to give in despite the mutual attraction. On shows like The Bachelor, producers are always meddling behind the scenes, creating a narrative that only slightly resembles reality. Here, the writers of Unreal are screwing with us, too — but the cause, good storytelling, is nobler.

Unreal airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT on Lifetime.

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