Lifetime's 'UnREAL' Brilliantly Handles Mental Illness

July 13th 2015

Whether you love or hate reality television, Lifetime's fictional drama "UnREAL" will alter the way you view it.

The program, which was just renewed for a second season, follows the grueling production behind a "Bachelor"-esque series called "Everlasting." The reality series focuses on wealthy British suitor Adam as he narrows down his pool of interested ladies, but the important person to watch is main character Rachel (portrayed by Shiri Appleby), a producer battling some serious demons and mental health challenges made worse by her job.

After having a nervous breakdown on camera, Rachel returns to work in hopes of keeping a low profile and getting back to her routine again. Like "Everlasting," however, drama follows Rachel wherever she goes, and the on site therapist she is required to see doesn't appear to be helping very much.

Though Rachel is morally responsible compared to many of the folks behind the show (a contestant says to her "I thought you were an actual person"), she surprises herself and viewers by how low she will stoop to make great TV. Rachel lies to and tricks female contestants into behaving weirdly enough to manufacture tension for the show, and in the first episode, she purposely eggs on a woman who has spent time in a psych ward to get footage of an epic meltdown. After another contestant loses her dad and asks to be taken home, Rachel instead brings her back to the "Everlasting" house, provoking a hysterical fit from the understandably emotional woman. The worst part? The editors hope to use these clips to frame both women as psychotic villains, because any show is useless without a bad guy.

Though Rachel is a solid producer, the job itself takes a toll on her sanity. The stress of working on "Everlasting" not only causes her to drunkenly interrupt the finale of a previous season before stealing a company car and zooming off, but goes against whatever is left in her value system. In episode three, her mental health issues are fully realized during a visit with her therapist mom:

"Are you taking your meds?" her mother asks.

"Which ones?" Rachel says. "What am I prescribed for right now? Because when we started out, it was ADHD. Then we moved on to bipolar. What came next? Was it borderline or narcissistic personality disorder? Because I always have a hard time with those two. I'm constantly getting them confused."

"Rachel, I know you," her mom says. "I see what you're trying to hide and how exhausted it makes you. And it breaks my heart. There's no shame in it. You have a disease, period."

When Rachel screams that she's amazing at her job, her mother says the reason she is such an amazing producer is because she's mentally ill.

"The reason you are so good at what you do, the manipulation, the attunement, that's the disease," she says.

Similar to Rachel, "UnREAL" creator Sarah Gertrude, Shapiro understands firsthand how working on a reality show can harm an individual's well-being. In a recent LA Times interview, Shapiro revealed she worked on nine seasons of "The Bachelor" and only escaped her contract when she threatened to commit suicide. Higher ups just thought she was trying to jump ship to another reality program, so she had to get out of California entirely to prove that "The Bachelor" and reality TV were making her ill.

"The only way out was to get fired, and I was such a good Jewish kid I could not make myself get fired," Shapiro told the publication. "So in 2005, I told my boss I was going to kill myself if I didn’t leave. But they still didn’t want to let me out of my contract. They were convinced that I had been poached by someone like 'Survivor' or Mark Burnett. I was like, 'No. I want to literally go lie under my mom’s table.' So I said, 'What if I leave the state?' And they were good with that because they knew I wasn’t going to work for the competition. Then I put all my stuff in my car and drove to Portland, Ore. I was so damaged. I never wanted to see Hollywood again. I was like, I’m gonna be a kale farmer. I couldn’t be near recording devices or talk on the phone for months."

As you can imagine, Rachel's character is far from the only one dealing with mental health issues on "UnREAL." One woman has an eating disorder, another is battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following an abusive marriage, and there's also a shocking suicide in one of the newer episodes. "UnREAL" shows there are no winners in a reality series like "Everlasting," not even the woman the suitor ultimately picks.

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