Television

TV CRITiC’s CORNER

Keeping it ‘UnREAL’

Shiri Appleby in in Lifetime’s “UnREAL.”
James Dittiger
Shiri Appleby in in Lifetime’s “UnREAL.”

UnREAL 10 p.m., Lifetime

This scripted drama is fairly insane, and fairly brilliant. “UnREAL” is about the making of a reality dating show called “Everlasting,” which looks a lot like “The Bachelor,” but it’s also about human nature and predatory behavior.

I think we all know that most reality shows are fake, and that they are orchestrated by the producers.“UnREAL” paints a vivid, uncompromising, and endlessly cynical picture of how that producer manipulation works — or how it might work.

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The folks who run “Everlasting” will stop at absolutely nothing to push the contestants into emotional breakdowns and fiery confrontations to make “good” TV. Led by Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby), they use the contestants’ private medical histories and make up complete lies in order to get the exciting dramatic scenes that they need. They make threats. At times, watching Quinn and Rachel ruthlessly play the bachelorettes — some of whom have their own agendas — is not just fascinating; it’s scary, a puppet show put on by the devil.

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This season, “Everlasting” is built around a black bachelor, Darius (B.J. Britt), which is bringing in a lot of interesting and bitingly satirical material about racism and the media. It has also moved the show ahead of reality, in that ABC’s “The Bachelor” hasn’t yet featured a black bachelor.

The crass characters on “UnREAL” won’t be bearable for many viewers. They are almost all awful people. But as a whole the show is a smart and incisive look at the dark side of American culture. It even contains a tinge of Aaron Sorkin-esque intelligence (if a lot less optimism) when it comes to showing how TV gets made.

I love the idea that reality TV has spawned something of value with “UnREAL,” that scripted TV is “reading” reality TV, owning it as it takes it apart piece by piece.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.