Sometimes, when the cosmic forces align, and a great concept, unique characters, and brilliant story editors/puppeteers come together, a reality show can be truly wonderful. Take the first season of Jersey Shore, for example. The nation was transfixed by the antics of Snooki, The Situation, JWoww, and the whole crew. No, it's not high art, but it is highly entertaining television. That is, of course, until the players become self-aware, start reading internet criticism about themselves, nab endorsement deals, launch clothing lines, change their appearances, and start acting differently on camera in subsequent seasons. Producers and network execs also tailor the show in response to audience and critical feedback, maneuvering the characters to create more dramatic story lines. That's when reality shows go downhill, and that's exactly what's happening on the current season of The Bachelorette. The contestants are all too conscious that producers slot them into certain roles to create tension. "Villains gotta vil," JJ and Clint toasted one another on last night's episode. Um, you guys? Even though her name is Cruella de Vil, and her main goal in life is to make a fur coat out of adorable Dalmatian puppies, you never actually hear her say, "I'm a mean woman who murders cute dogs and must be defeated for good to prevail!" It kind of deflates the dramatic tension when you spell it all out. I assume The Bachelorette producers would prefer the show's antagonists emerge through authentic asshole-y behavior. But Clint and JJ are trying way too hard for camera time, and it's painful to watch. While The Bachelorette has never been highbrow television, once upon a time, at least it was entertaining and new. Producers and contestants were still figuring out what it meant to be a part of an overly romanticized, televised search for love that took place at warp speed in extremely unbelievable situations (unless your third dates do, in fact, take place in Curaçao, in which case, do you want to go out sometime?), and it was fun to watch them do so. Those first few seasons felt like a novelty, and viewers loved it. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette were cultural phenomenons, but we've reached the point where the originals are fading against emerging facsimiles. The franchise has spawned numerous spoofs, including the hilarious Burning Love, which is the creation of Erica Oyama, a self-professed fan of The Bachelor.
The latest homage is Lifetime's UnREAL, which by no coincidence premiered last night at 10 p.m., right after The Bachelorette finished airing on ABC. UnREAL might be a shock to anyone who's never thought about just how much handling goes on behind the scenes of reality shows. Every human appearance on camera is act of manipulation, whether the person is aware of it or not. Throw in the fact that shows like The Bachelor trade on emotional responses to fabricated, uncanny situations, and you've got a recipe for explosions. This applies to both contestants and crew members. UnREAL is scripted, but it moves at a breakneck speed and feels very off the cuff. The premiere episode follows the first night of shooting on Everlasting, a (fictional) hit dating reality show that looks and feels just like The Bachelor. A producer named Rachel (Shiri Appleby) has just returned after having a nervous breakdown, and it's clear that no one wants her back on set aside from showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer). Rachel has a rare gift for the type of emotional manipulation that causes contestants to break down and reveal their ugliest, most authentic selves on television, though, and that's why Quinn allowed her to come back. It all boils down to ratings, even at the cost of contestants' and employees' livelihoods and mental well-being. It's also unclear if Rachel has a conscience (or one that she'll listen to, anyway), or if she even enjoys life or her job. She knows that she's good at it, so shouldn't she keep doing it? That's a question viewers are left to ponder as Rachel prods an ousted contestant until she breaks down in tears. You wonder how many producers on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have done the same thing, then retuned home at night, eaten dinner, and gone to sleep like nothing happened. Behind the scenes of a show that's supposed to help two people find everlasting love, things are pretty ugly — and a lot more complicated. I'd much rather watch a show about that than see self-aware Bachelorette suitors act like assholes on national TV in the interest of seizing their 15 minutes of fame.