Tube Talk: The Unreal-ity of Reality

By Paula Hendrickson
Television Columnist

One of my favorite new summer series is Lifetime’s UnREAL, which debuted earlier this month.

(Yes. Lifetime. Its new slogan could be “Not just cheesy TV movies anymore.”)

UnREAL may take place on the set of a Bachelor-like “reality” show, but instead of glamorizing the genre, UnREAL shows how easily producers can manipulate contestants and edit clips together to make one bachelorette more sympathetic while turning another into a villain.

Constance Zimmer (House of Cards, Entourage) plays the puppet master showrunner, Quinn, a woman with apparently no qualms about exploiting contestants’ vulnerabilities and naivety if it results in a juicier storyline. When something horrible happens, she’s likely to say, “It makes great TV.” But when the British bachelor (Freddie Stroma, Pitch Perfect, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) fails to choose the woman Quinn has chosen to be the villain, field producers are offered a cash bonus to get footage making one of the remaining contestants the new villain.

Not only does the faux reality show they’re making have a villain and a saint, it has every “type” of contestant you would expect, even if some have to be manufactured with creative editing (or persuaded to go to extremes to get more camera time).

The engineered drama of the show-within-the-show is nothing compared to the problems facing freelance producer, Rachel (Shiri Appleby, Life Unexpected, Roswell), a former staffer whose train wreck of a personal life includes a public emotional breakdown, debt, homelessness, blackmail, a dysfunctional family and working with her ex and his new fiancée.

While some behind-the-scenes elements are surely played up to make this a highly entertaining show, the fact that one of its co-creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, once worked on The Bachelor leaves you wondering how much, if at all, the line between reality and reality shows has been blurred.

Another summer series, The Astronaut Wives Club, based on author Lily Koppel’s non-fiction book of the same name, tells the story of the women married to some of NASA pioneering astronauts.

Starring Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) and JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Reba, Once Upon A Time), The Astronaut Wives Club is set in early 1960s. The 10-episode series no doubt dramatizes and condenses the book’s version of these real women’s life stories — which were whitewashed by NASA publicists back in the day to make the astronauts and their families appear more heroic than they already were — into a more linear narrative. But just because a show is based on real-life events doesn’t mean the final result will be any more factual than a so-called “reality” show.

If you watch both shows you’ll probably be left wondering which is closer to reality: the backstabbing antics that go into in creating a salacious reality show as depicted on UnREAL, or a drama fueled TV series based on a book about the actual women who happened to be married to our earliest astronauts?

Programming Notes

UnREAL airs Mondays at 9 p.m. CST on Lifetime

The Astronauts Wives Club premieres Thursday at 7 p.m. CST on ABC

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