A series started earlier this summer about a tortured antihero operating in a corrupt world of immense psychic violence. Before you shout, "I have seen that one before! And before and before," let me stop you: You have not. Lifetime's UnReal (Mondays at 10 p.m.) is a scripted drama set behind the scenes of a reality show closely modeled on The Bachelor — a setting that immediately suggests the show will be a bit of frivolous summer fun. But UnReal is darker than a locked box inside a lightproof cube sitting on the bottom of the ocean at midnight. It is an ice cream sundae laced with ipecac, delectable and poisonous all at once. And it's irresistible.
UnReal stars Shiri Appleby as Rachel Goldberg, a producer of a long-running Bachelor-esque franchise called Everlasting. When we first meet her, she is wearing a "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, but she has forsaken almost all of her principles, feminist and otherwise.
As UnReal begins, Rachel has just returned to Everlasting after an on-camera breakdown in which she described the show as "Satan's asshole," a bit of honesty that inadvertently scored great ratings, but put her in financial debt to the franchise. She is welcomed back, with a bit of blackmail in the air, by the show's fierce executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), who knows that Rachel is an ace. "People like and trust [Rachel]," Quinn says, "and that can't be taught." Appleby makes the audience like and trust Rachel, too, even as she begrudgingly does wrong after wrong.
Rachel is a remarkable empath, and with this great power she has forsaken responsibility, allowing herself to get off on the short term high of being good at her job, even if that job is morally repugnant. Rachel always seems to want to do the right thing — to not sell out, expose, manipulate, and embarrass the women on Everlasting for good television — but not quite enough to, in fact, do the right thing.
UnReal was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who worked for a time as a producer on The Bachelor. That franchise is hardly a paragon of decency, but — as all those texts you send while watching can attest — it can be dull. Everlasting, in contrast, is never, thanks largely to Quinn, who uses her killer instinct and the promise of bonuses to egg her producers on.
Rachel and the other producers have elicited on-screen meltdowns by refusing to tell one contestant that her father is seriously ill, encouraging a black contestant to act the part of the "black bitch," enabling bulimia, and swapping out a woman's anti-psychotics. UnReal pays reality TV watchers the compliment of presuming that they need more entertainment to be entertained — and then backhands it by supplying entertainment only a sadist could, in good conscience, enjoy.
• Back episodes of Unreal are available on Lifetime's on demand channel.