'UnReal' Gave Us a Female Anti-Hero

August 4th 2015

Laura Donovan

Lifetime's explosive summer hit "UnReal," which brilliantly tackles mental illness, aired its season one finale on Monday night. The show has been renewed for a second season and achieved something few TV shows have been able to do. As some have pointed out, it has nailed the art of the female anti-hero, not just in main character Rachel, but in her female boss Quinn.

The program, which was created by "Bachelor" alum Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, follows the slimy, behind-the-scenes production process of a "Bachelor"-esque series called "Everlasting." The reality show focuses on rich British suitor Adam as he decides which woman to marry, but he has a secret relationship with producer Rachel, who has a history of mental illness and a fizzled romance with Jeremy, another guy on set. Rachel wants to be a good person and above the messy drama of working in reality TV, but her boss Quinn, a manipulative head producer, consistently reminds her that they are one and the same, and she thinks Rachel ought to own it.


Though romance is a compelling and important part of the Lifetime show, Rachel would rather succeed as a producer than force a happy ending with Jeremy, who broke off his engagement with someone else for her. In the finale, Rachel and Adam almost run away together but he decides last minute that he would be better off marrying one of the contestants on "Everlasting." That's when Rachel fully becomes the female anti-hero she's been edging towards all season and chooses to enact revenge on Adam by putting on a killer final episode of "Everlasting." In the last installment, Adam is set to marry contender Anna on camera. Right before the wedding, Rachel pulls Adam into a Catholic confessional, where she sobs over him breaking things off with her and appears devastated. He admits he never loved Anna but has to marry her for the show. When he leaves the confessional, Rachel stops crying and the camera reveals Anna heard the entire thing on the other side of the confessional.

Because of Rachel, Anna bails on her own wedding. Not only is this a historical moment for the series "Everlasting," which has never ended without a marriage, but a win for Rachel, who was apparently motivated to punish Adam for rejecting her and boosted her career along the way. It's manipulative for sure, but Rachel learned from fellow female anti-hero Quinn, whose long-term romance with top producer Chet ends because he cheated on her shortly after they got engaged.

Quinn and Rachel are both great examples of strong female anti-heroes, as they deal with heartbreak and disappointment by working harder to succeed as producers no matter what that entails.

"The show has broken ground by simultaneously skewering a genre that pits women against women, upending the prince myth with a selfish dolt and offering a manipulative female lead who’s not just a villainous foil, but the central protagonist," writes Eliana Dockterman for TIME. "Nor is Rachel a victim turned bad. She’s just a woman who is frighteningly good at her exploitative job... [W]riting female anti-heroes is more complicated than turning Don Draper into Donna or Tony Soprano into Tonya. Perhaps more important than the characters, are the conflicts they face, and those of UnREAL are uniquely tailored to the modern woman... Rachel believes in high-minded principles, but as Shapiro felt herself while working on 'The Bachelor,' she’s had to sacrifice them for the sake of money and the future of her career. As women still grapple with whether to prioritize ambition over likability, it’s liberating for women to watch a character who doesn’t even try to be nice."

"UnREAL" creator, Shapiro, who managed to get out of her "Bachelor" contract only after threatening to kill herself, told TIME that she didn't factor likability into the main characters of the show.

“We threw the idea of likability out before we even began,” she said. "We don’t subscribe to the idea of likability because we don’t think it’s applied to men.”

Co-creator Marti Noxon acknowledged that there are other female anti-heroes on TV but said "Unreal" was made to "push it to the limits and say, ‘That’s not despicable enough.’”

Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair compared Rachel to legendary "Breaking Bad" anti-hero Walter White, a high school teacher who chooses to sell meth after learning of his cancer diagnosis.

"It’s that push and pull of likable meek persona and terrifying manipulative mastermind that makes Rachel, like Walter White before her, such a compelling character," Robinson wrote. "[J]ust like White, Rachel is in this entirely for herself ... Rachel may seem like a far cry from the meth kingpin of Albuquerque. But remember that Walter White began as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher ... [R]emember that before he was Walter White, Bryan Cranston was the lovable dad from Malcolm in the Middle. Sometimes the scariest things come in cutest packages."

Shiri Appleby, who plays Rachel, told Vanity Fair of the comparison, "[Shapiro] and I talked about it a lot during the first season and she would say, this is the Walter White moment ... Showing the dark side of what this world is like, and how ugly it can make you feel.”