Set behind-the-scenes of a Bachelor-style dating show, the fictional world of UnREAL hints at the dark methods used to construct reality TV. Co-created by Marti Noxon and ex-Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the disturbing revelations in the drama suggest that almost nothing that we see on reality TV is remotely close to reality as we know it. As someone who has watched The Bachelor US, The Bachelor NZ, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise this year, this fantastic black comedy absolutely shattered my world.
Conversations on camera in UnREAL are lifted, reshuffled and dropped into another context to construct reality drama. Minders whisper gently into the ears of the vulnerable, goading them into humiliation. Drugs, alcohol, emotion and long nights mean that people are no longer themselves, and become whoever producers want them to be. Even the crew lose their marbles on the regular.
But how accurate is it all? Is UnREAL a Wikileaks-style peek into the reality sausage factory? Or the dark twisted fantasy of all the things the showrunner wished she done? Our own Chrystal Chenery of The Bachelor NZ alluded to some similarities, whereas Bachelor host and romance novel author Chris Harrison called it all a crock of crap. Who to believe?
I wanted answers! I got in touch with Dani Robinson, runner-up of New Zealand’s first ever season of The Bachelor, and long-time fan of the American dating franchise. With her experience as both a devoted audience member, and a very recent contestant, I was sure she could pull her walls down, wear her heart on her sleeve, and tell me the dirty truth about UnREAL. We popped on the first episode, and I waited eagerly for her hot takes on how the romantic reality cocktail is mixed.
Teasing the suitor
[Trapped in the limo before meeting Prince Charming, Rachel gets the girls amping by showing them his headshot]
Dani’s take: We had no idea beforehand that the bachelor was going to be Art, we knew nothing about him. The Bachelorettes didn’t even get to see each other properly before we got into the cars to go to the mansion. We couldn’t talk to, or even look at, one another – even though we were getting ready in the same room. They stood us apart and we had to look straight ahead.
Phone confiscation and cabin fever isolation
[Rachel confiscates the contestants’ phones, claiming they’ll get them back in eight weeks if they are lucky, overnight if they aren’t]
I didn’t even take my phone with me, but you weren’t allowed to have them on you. We were allowed to check emails and call your parents – you’d just have to ask someone. If you went on social media, they made it pretty clear that you would be in big trouble. We weren’t allowed to be seen online at all.
Finding love amongst mobs of cameramen
[Rachel’s ex-boyfriend Jeremy follows everyone and anyone around with his steadicam, chases after runaway contestants]
Dani’s take: There were probably about three sets of crews going at any one time. There was one on Art the whole time, one on a group of girls talking, one on the main girl trying to talk to Art. It never really bothered me. I always used to whisper into to mic, to the sound guys, “and I’m going to the toilet in 3… 2… 1”. Sometimes when we were shooting I would get really bored and quietly mutter “if you can hear me, wave your left hand”. And then across the lawn you’d get a big wave. It was so weird.
Puppeteer producers dealing in stereotypes
[Executive producer Quinn urges Mary to gush about her daughter’s need for a father, before slapping on the label of ‘Desperate MILF’]
Dani’s take: It’s funny, we used to sit in the house and try to pick which girl matched up with each stereotype. I thought I was cast as “the young one”, and was really shocked when I saw that they had cast Carrisa, who was even younger than me. We picked Chrystal as “The Bitch” character pretty early on. They made Alysha look like the emotional one, but she was nowhere near the most emotional. I thought Matilda would be the funny one, and she was edited as “The Good Girl”. I didn’t realise I was going to be the funny one, I actually thought I would be the intelligent one. Nobody told me that I was funny whilst we were filming, I honestly had no idea.
Conversations lifted from the comfort of context
[Rachel stays up all night drinking with Britney, using her emotional revelations about her father as exit-interview fodder]
Dani’s take: I said to the girls in the house that the only thing that we had control over were the words that came out of our mouths. The editors can twist and contort them however they want, but you still have to have said them in the first place. My words were my one thing I knew I could use well. I also wrote goals down about myself – about why I was there, what my values were and what my best qualities were. So whenever I got in a bitchy mood I would just read those. People can lose who they are on The Bachelor.
I swear a lot, which is something you don’t see that much of in the show. So did Art. We would have a big conversation and the crew would be like “great chat, but we can’t use any of that”. We didn’t reshoot conversations, they just wouldn’t use it. They did include me saying to Matilda “but you’ve already got a rose you f***** selfish little b****”, which shocked everyone. What people didnt see if that I spoke to everyone like that all the time, and I was also pretty drunk.
Working with a crew of cynics
[“Leave your conscience at the door on this one. Okay?” – Producer Quinn encourages her staff to manipulate their chosen contestants.]
Dani’s take: Do any of the people working on this [Everlasting] show actually believe in the concept? What I loved about our crew is that they genuinely believed that the format could work, that people could find love. A lot of them were very passionate about ensuring that all of the girls got time with Art for that reason.
You could tell that our directors and story producers got so involved in the journey. For example, when Art didn’t choose me at the end, the crew just sort of stood around looking at each other. Then the story producer, who I guess is like Rachel in UnREAL, was bawling her eyes out for me. She couldn’t even catch her words to interview me properly afterwards. Either way it was going to be hard, but it just goes to show that no-one in the crew knew who he was going to pick.
Individual minders take on their own pet projects
[Rachel is assigned the task of getting Mary The MILF to make a desperate plea to Adam for a father figure for her child.]
Dani’s take: We didn’t have our own minders, but you definitely had story producers that you would open up to more. There probably four story producers, who would work with the camera crews the whole time. When we did our talking heads, I found that there were people that made me feel more comfortable than others. They would just ask “How was your day? How are you feeling?”
Putting words in contestant’s mouths
[Producers ask Faith to reveal her virginal status to Adam during their first conversation]
Dani’s take: I can see how some girls fell into a prompting trap. Off-camera, the story producers would say something like “how was your kiss? was it electric?” and then the girl would say “the kiss was electric”. That’s why people end up saying quite cliché stuff, it was easier to give the producers what they wanted sometimes. I would tell the producers to rephrase their questions if I felt they were swaying me to say something.
Cold macaroni catering
[Rachel is never far from some sad, old pasta bake]
Dani’s take: Ah, set food. We cooked food for ourselves every day. We shared rooms – me and Matilda were roomies together all the way till the Gold Coast. On the nights of the cocktail parties, we had catering. I think they wanted to make sure that we were eating, and that we weren’t trying to make our own food instead of getting ready. They didn’t want anyone to leave the oven on or anything. It was all nice healthy stuff, our chaperone made sure we didn’t get carbs if we didn’t want carbs.
Long hard nights of shooting
Dani’s take: The rose ceremonies were straight after the cocktail parties, and at the beginning they took ages with all the new camera set-ups. There were so many girls, the first night we were actually shooting till sunrise. Because of the summer hours, it didn’t get dark that night till about 8.30pm, so we didn’t even start the cocktail party until 1am. The rose ceremony felt ten times longer when you’re there under the lights, like on Survivor waiting for your torch to be extinguished. There were a few times when I nearly fainted, there was one instance towards the end where Matilda was actually propping me up with her hand on my back.
Big Brother is watching you
[Jeremy hides behind a shrub to capture some intimate, drunken conversation between Rachel and Britney]
Dani’s take: We got really suspicious at one point that the Bachelor house was bugged, and searched under all the tables and stuff. We felt like the crew sometimes knew stuff that we had talked about about in private, but it turns out we were just very paranoid. They had to sit us all down and say “we haven’t bugged the house, relax you crazies”. Because we had scheduled filming, we would tell each other “just hold your shit together until you get home – then you can break down”.
Prince Charming’s Ulterior Motives
Dani’s take: Nah, Art is too smart for that, and he’s too kind. He worries too much about other people’s feelings, as you could have seen when he struggled to send people home. He wanted everyone to just hang out and be friends. Art wasn’t a sleaze like this Everlasting guy. He got a lot of shit for asking people if he could kiss them, but I actually thought that it was sweet.
What do you reckon? Click below to have a peek behind the curtain and binge-watch all ten episodes of UnREAL exclusively on Lightbox
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