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‘Unreal,’ ‘The Bachelor,’ and the TV That Happens Behind the Scenes

The new season of Lifetime’s ‘Bachelor’ satire is an improvement—but still no match for its source material, or for the real-life machinations that inspire them both

ABC/Lifetime/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The world could use an Unreal, or at least the kind of show that Unreal purports to be. A part satire, part exposé of America’s reigning reality franchise, the Lifetime drama aims to counter The Bachelor with a salacious appeal of its own. Unreal’s portrait of an exploitative, barely fictional dating show called Everlasting is built on a foundation of personal experience; one of the show’s cocreators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, worked as a Bachelor producer for years, and protagonist Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) functions as something of an onscreen surrogate. Rachel even dreams of escaping to Oregon, which is exactly where Shapiro drove with all her earthly possessions after finally leaving The Bachelor behind in 2005.

Unreal is now well into its third season, and The Bachelor is coming up on its 23rd. Shapiro has long since established her fundamental stance on The Bachelor’s themes and practices. (TL;DR: They’re bad.) Besides, in a world where the show’s behind-the-camera crew regularly document their lives on Instagram and discuss their work on podcasts, audiences no longer need to be told that the narratives they’re consuming are manufactured. But if the appetite for The Bachelor and its many spin-offs remains bottomless, the need for a dissenting voice, if not an equally powerful one, continues.

The past few weeks have been especially fruitful for Bachelor observers, particularly the cynics among them. The latest season finale saw a distasteful twist on a romantic change of heart: race car driver Arie Luyendyk Jr. dumped his then-fiancée Becca Kufrin during what would normally have been an unfilmed rendezvous, with the screen split in two so viewers could take in Kufrin’s distraught reaction second by excruciating second. That Kufrin then immediately agreed to be the next Bachelorette added an extra dimension of gamesmanship to the whole affair. Both Becca and the franchise alike were smoothly folding the Arie fiasco into their own larger narratives: The Bachelor by turning emotional pain as entertainment into recovery story as entertainment; Becca by willingly signing on to another round of a circus she now has firsthand experience with. Sometimes The Bachelor makes Unreal’s point for it.

Within 24 hours of the telecast of Arie’s anti-proposal, Los Angeles Times writer Amy Kaufman published Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure. In her reported account of the origins, evolution, and routines of The Bachelor, Kaufman provides more than enough material to prove that Unreal is less an exaggeration than a light tweaking. On Unreal, contestants are referred to by reductive nicknames like “MILF” and “wifey.” On The Bachelor, there are dossiers on each competitor with field notes like “fragile as glass” and “get her in the house because she’ll drive the other girls crazy,” verbatim quotes Kaufman pulls from real production notes. On Unreal, Season 1 suitor Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), an upper-class Brit weathering a tabloid scandal, is packaged as a fairy tale prince, complete with a wedding in a castle. On The Bachelor, Season 9 suitor Lorenzo Borghese got the same treatment—despite growing up in New Jersey, not Italy, where his season was shot. On Unreal, a producer casually threatens to give a contestant “the bitch edit.” On The Bachelor, Kaufman learns, there’s an actual term of art for twisting someone’s words in postproduction to mean the opposite of what they actually said: a “Frankenbite.”

Kaufman even draws explicit parallels between characters on Unreal and actual power players on The Bachelor. Former executive producer Lisa Levenson, Kaufman says, was likely the inspiration for Rachel’s boss, the unapologetically vicious Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). Philandering man-child Chet (Craig Bierko), who has none of Quinn’s drive and still gets all of her credit, is obviously Bachelor maestro Mike Fleiss. On Unreal, Quinn and Chet had a years-long affair; according to Kaufman, there were widespread but unconfirmed rumors that Levenson and Fleiss, both married, were sleeping together.

Between Kaufman’s book and The Bachelor’s unexpected season finale, real life conveniently provided Unreal with vindication precisely when the show needed it most. After a remarkable, albeit melodramatic, first season, the follow-up took a uniquely promising set-up and squandered it in record time. Everlasting cast its first black suitor, NFL quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), before The Bachelor featured a black lead on any of its various permutations. (Attorney Rachel Lindsay would become the first in 2017, when she helmed The Bachelorette.) Unreal then bungled its half-hearted attempt at racial commentary with a police shooting that was simultaneously overwrought and underwritten. The rest of the show struggled, too, saddling Quinn with a cringeworthy romance and visibly straining to find a use for cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly). In a New Yorker profile, Shapiro let slip that she’d originally wanted to write Kelly off the show, a reluctance that showed in a forced, last-minute attempt to reintegrate him into the ensemble by having him murder two would-be whistleblowers. No, really.

Lifetime seemed to recognize that a change of pace was in order. Unreal changed showrunners, took an extended hiatus, and returned after 18 months with a premise better suited to the series’ natural strengths. This time, Everlasting would have its first female “Suitress,” a “female Elon Musk” named Serena Wolcott (Caitlin FitzGerald). Against my better judgment, this news alone was enough to revive my engagement in a show that had badly burned my perhaps too-high expectations. Much like a Bachelor fan who continues to tune in long after the fantasy’s been punctured by broken relationships and sponsored Instagram posts, I dutifully strapped in for another round. But while Unreal may never again match the heights of its searing, enthralling first episodes, Season 3 has seen it return to much friendlier territory. If Unreal can’t work as high-minded social commentary, it can embrace its identity as occasionally (and often accidentally) insightful soap — and as its audience, so can we.

With Quinn and Rachel’s latest overhaul of the Everlasting formula, Unreal can no longer claim to be miles ahead of its subject; after all, The Bachelorette has been around since 2003. Maybe that’s why there’s so much less onscreen angst over making a woman the face of Everlasting. Also notably absent are Rachel’s dreams — or were they delusions? — of working inside the system to advance her personal ideals. Last season, Rachel convinced herself that making groundbreaking television would be worth the lies and deception that come with her job description. This year, Quinn tells her point-blank, “[Serena] is not the avatar for you or me, nor is she the avatar for smart women everywhere. She is the star of a reality television show that I have to make work. The most feminist thing you could do right now is help me!”

It’s tempting to read into this dialed-down chest-beating a corresponding scaling down of Unreal’s ambitions. There are only so many times Rachel can go back to a job she hates before she admits she gets a kick out of it, and there are only so many times Unreal can create a proxy version of The Bachelor before it becomes apparent the show finds its mirror image as entertaining as it does appalling. Now that Unreal has made its issues with The Bachelor and the dirty work that goes into it abundantly clear, maybe it’s best to embrace the hypocrisy in the name of good TV.

These altered priorities manifest in Unreal’s treatment of Serena, who stands out from suitors past in one simple way. Unreal’s other stars have had an agenda: Adam wanted to rehabilitate his image; Darius wanted to boost his profile for a potential post-NFL career as a broadcaster. Both men cynically used Everlasting even as Everlasting cynically used them. Serena, by contrast, earnestly buys into the myth that Everlasting can “maximize my dating flow” and find her a husband. There’s something equally uncomfortable and thematically rich about the first female Everlasting lead internalizing its false image of romance and feeling incomplete without a partner despite an otherwise fulfilling and accomplished life. But Unreal never bothers to make much of this troubling disparity, allowing the viewer to doubt whether the writers are reinforcing a sexist stereotype or commenting on it.

Unreal makes more of Everlasting’s new supporting cast. Suddenly, the set isn’t a viper pit of (mostly) women taking advantage of other women at the behest of a male creator and male-led network. This time, the ones being exploited are men—very hot, frequently shirtless men, who can just as easily be goaded into drunken confrontations as their female counterparts. Unreal appears much more aware of this dynamic and its implications; Quinn uses a contestant for casual sex as countless skeevy producers have before her, only for him to bring up his legitimate grounds for a sexual harassment complaint a few episodes later. Everlasting’s abuses might have less to do with patriarchy than who holds power, which is a point Unreal has made before. (Quinn has always been the embodiment of internalized misogyny.) Everlasting’s new setup still allows Unreal to explore one of its fundamental themes in surprising new ways.

Unreal is dramatically better equipped to dig into gender than race, but it stays messy, often extraordinarily so. Producer Jay (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman) suddenly has a serious boyfriend we’ve never seen before, and Chet gets a tragic backstory retconned in a transparent bid for sympathy. Unreal has always existed in a bizarre parallel universe where Everlasting miraculously edits and airs episodes while it’s still filming, and maintains a similarly tenuous relationship with plausibility and tight plotting throughout.

Such sloppiness takes a toll on Rachel, who bears the brunt of the ludicrous double murder from last season’s finale. This season delves into her backstory, which involves sexual trauma facilitated in part by her mother, a therapist who has no compunctions about treating and drugging her own immediate family. The subplot is cartoonish; at one point, Rachel convinces her father to leave his wife of many decades in a matter of hours. Worse, it’s unnecessary. In Bachelor Nation, Kaufman dedicates a few pages to Unreal, in which a fellow producer describes Shapiro as “a Jewish New York girl, who went to a great college” and “a big schlub.” In other words, she was exactly like countless people who either look down their noses at The Bachelor or half-ironically tune in to jeer at its contenders. Shapiro herself admits that all it took to abandon her principles was “a fucking paycheck.” There was no tortured past that compelled her to the Agoura Hills mansion — just a need to make rent.

This, in the end, is the horror of Unreal and The Bachelor alike: that anyone, under the right circumstances, could be compelled to act the way these contestants and producers do. If you give someone enough alcohol, if you deprive them of enough sleep, if you cut them off thoroughly enough from the outside world, they, too, would start hurling drinks and pining for a near stranger. That’s a dark reality. No wonder both shows feel the need to dress it up with over-the-top theatrics.