Genre: TV Pilot – 1 hr. Drama/Comedy
Premise: A look at the behind-the-scenes drama that occurs on a “Bachelor” like reality show.
About: Had you told me a month ago I’d be reviewing a Lifetime teleplay about reality television, I would’ve told you to bring me your torch. You’ve been voted off the island. But Lifetime is really high on this show and is giving it the full rollout treatment in anticipation of its June 1st premiere. Also, half-a-dozen people have e-mailed me on separate occasions to tell me how much they liked the script. And that doesn’t happen at all with TV pilots. The show was created by Marti Noxon, who adapted the YA novel, “I Am Number Four,” as well as the updated “Fright Night.” Marti’s also written a ton of TV, with her resume including Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Glee. Co-creator Sarah Shapiro, is making her writing debut here.
Writer: Marti Noxon & Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Details: 55 pages – 8/28/13 draft

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I’m guessing the percentage of the Scriptshadow reader base that also watches reality television is equivalent to the percentage of Mormons who caught 50 Shades of Grey. You’re not alone. The industry has never liked reality television.

It’s the reason why nobody would even glance at a screenplay that dealt with reality shows. The unofficial official company line was: Never write a screenplay about reality TV.

But that’s the funky thing about Hollywood. Is that something’s a given until all of a sudden it isn’t. And the “isn’t” is, in most cases, a good script. If you write a good script, your friendly neighborhood rule book can be tossed out the window.

So I have an extra modicum of respect for anyone who breaks through the firmly locked gates of Hollywood’s ivory tower with something different. Typically, when Hollywood wants to keep someone out, they succeed.

29 year-old Rachel is a reality show producer. Reality show producers are the behind-the-scenes workers who prime the contestants on your favorite reality show that you tell everyone you don’t watch to say what the show wants them to say. The ones who say they think they’re “falling in love” with Douglas the Bachelor even though they just met him 20 minutes ago? Yeah, Rachel’s the one who makes sure that soundbite happens.

A producer is SUPPOSED to stay objective and let the talent dictate the course of the story. But come on. If that were the case, you wouldn’t get those level 17 meltdowns from the former prom queen who’s just realized that no man will ever consider her marriage material. It’s Rachel who plants that seed a few days earlier so that when the contestant’s voted off, it all comes spilling out in her exit interview.

The thing is, Rachel hates her job. She considers it to be more soul-sucking than doing porn and if there’s anywhere else she could be, even if it was cleaning sewers in Mumbai, she would do it. That is, if she wasn’t so damn good at her job. Rachel can convince anyone to do anything, a highly valued skill in the world of producing reality television.

In this first episode, those skills will be put to the test when our “Bachelor,” Adam Conway of Conway Hotels, decides to quit just minutes before the show’s to begin. Rachel uses some Darth Vader level Jedi mind tricks on Adam to get him to reconsider. But they end up backfiring. Adam agrees to come back but only if he gets to have Rachel around all the time.

Of course, that leads to the most obvious of questions. If Adam and Rachel are going to be around each other so much, what’s going to happen between them? And if something’s going to happen between them, what does that mean for the 18 women vying for Adam’s hand in marriage?

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As demand for product keeps expanding in television, more and more of these blacklisted ideas (“Never write about reality TV!”) are going to get lifted. TV is in this really rare place in history where the demand for product is way bigger than the supply.

So if you’ve tossed an idea out just because you’ve heard Hollywood hates it, it might be time to dust that idea off and write it. Today’s show proves it’s possible.

But it wasn’t just the idea that got the pilot on the air. This is good writing. In fact, Unreal utilizes one of the most powerful tools available to writers to make it work. IRONY.

The Bachelor is the personification of a fairy tale. Every date is postcard perfect. Every conversation is filled with laughter. Every kiss is framed against a golden sunset. So what is Unreal about? It’s about the cheating that goes on behind those dates. It’s about the manipulation used to guide those conversations. It’s about the bullying that must be used to get that golden kiss. Unreal is about the slimy underbelly of reality television, and that’s what makes it so fun.

“Irony” is a tough word for some screenwriters to grasp. So let’s put it this way. One of your biggest weapons as a writer is CONTRAST. Whatever extreme you have in one aspect of your idea, try to contrast it with the opposite extreme in another.

So if you have a show about happiness, contrast it with a crew who hates their jobs more than anything. If your main character is a serial killing cannibal, contrast that by making him polite and inviting. If you’re writing a scene about a woman dumping her boyfriend, create contrast by setting it at his birthday party. Contrast, my fellow screenwriting enthusiasts, is a really easy way to look like a really good writer.

Also, when you’re writing a romance-based show (or a show where people hook up a lot), you want to make it as hard for those people to hook up as possible. The more difficult it is for people to hook up, the more drama you’re going to get. So you have this show here where contestants hooking up with crew can destroy the entire production. So there are real stakes to people getting together who shouldn’t be together.

The only thing wrong with this pilot is that the execution’s vanilla. Everything kind of went the way you expected it to, save for a Rachel breakdown in the final act. You can even sniff out where the main hook-ups of the season are going to be. That can be enjoyable to an extent. Waiting for two people we’re dying to see get together finally get together. But there still needs to be an element of surprise to a show. And Unreal hasn’t shown me it’s capable of doing that yet.

I will say, though, that if you want a dark humorous look at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a reality television show, Unreal does a pretty good job of delivering.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Make it so your character must consistently go against their moral compass in order to push the story forward. Rachel hates manipulating these contestants. But she has to in order to get the big moment for the cameras. For example, when one of the girls is ready to give up, Rachel uses her knowledge of the girl’s previous boyfriend physically abusing her to promote Adam as the opposite of him. This dirty trick reenergizes the contestant and now she’s back pining for Adaman’s attention. Maybe a better way to convey this is this: Have your main character sell a little piece of their soul every time they have to do something important. This will ensure that your character is always fighting an inner battle, which audiences love to watch.

  • Scott Strybos

    “Make it so your character must consistently go against their moral compass in order to push the story forward…Have your main character sell a little piece of their soul every time they have to do something important. This will ensure that your character is always fighting an inner battle, which audiences love to watch.”

    This is a gem… I’m writing it down.

    • S.C.

      Yes, this is a bit like John Truby’s MORAL LINE. Don’t know if anyone else knows Truby or wants to discuss him. I like his ideas and they’ve influenced me.

      • Scott Strybos

        I’m ashamed to say this is the first I’ve heard of Truby…. (after a quick google search) I see that, yes, he is a real guy and he seems to be respected. I’m going to delve into his teachings now, see what he is about. Thanks for the introduction.

        • S.C.

          Yeah, he’s good… a lot of people say he’s the best, like McKee but more practical.

      • Levres de Sang

        I bought his book, The Anatomy of Story, but would actually recommend people watch his You Tube videos first and foremost. What he says about developing the hundreds of techniques required “to work at the professional level” is compelling. I also love what he says about premise lines — and imagine that’s right in your wheelhouse, too! :)

    • Randy Williams

      What if the protagonist is unaware of going against their moral compass? But you see it expressed in another character they are effecting by their choices. They are consumed by other things to realize it. I think about The Devil Wears Prada. The boyfriend basically expressed her selling a little piece of her soul every time she had to do something important. He was the character fighting a battle for them both. It really worked really nicely, I thought.

      So, maybe you have the character unaware of how they are selling a little piece of their souls every time they have to do something important, and have that expressed through other characters effected by it. Then, give them that dramatic moment when they realize it and try to mend those pieces back together again.

    • andyjaxfl

      Good advice right after I watched L.A. Confidential, which is 18 years old! God, I really enjoy that movie.

      Exley, White, and Vincennes are struggling throughout the movie with their moral compass. Exley and White betray everything their principles at the start of the movie whereas Vincennes betrayed them so long ago he can’t even remember what they were.

  • Nicholas J

    This is a really great idea for a show. I had something similar rattling around, but I guess I’ll have to shelve it. There are so many people out there that still don’t realize how fake reality TV is, that a show like this can really peel the curtain back in an entertaining way. I hate reality TV as much as the next person, but find everything that goes on behind the scenes really interesting, and I think others would too. If they can execute this well and interweave it with some soap worthy of a reality show, it could find a decent audience.

    • S.C.

      It’s so much about the editing. You can make anyone look like a fool with editing. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who spots how fake those long “comedy” pauses and double-takes are.

      • Nicholas J

  • steveblair

    love this, carson: Have your main character sell a little piece of their soul every time they have to do something important. This will ensure that your character is always fighting an inner battle, which audiences love to watch.

  • fragglewriter

    Lifetime television programming has gotten better so kudos for them. I like the revamping. I think writers should look into those non-major stations as they are trying to maintain there current viewers as well as expand their viewership.

    Great tip.

  • Linkthis83

    Great article today, C. The thing I’m working on has the main character not really having a flaw, but character traits he must deny in order to get what he wants.

    • S.C.

      I’m thinking about the idea of, instead of flaw, it’s character’s USUAL RESPONSE. And the USUAL RESPONSE usually gets them what they want, but in this story (the one I’M telling) they need to adapt. Not change, adapt. Have a DIFFERENT RESPONSE.

      So if the USUAL RESPONSE is VIOLENCE, the DIFFERENT RESPONSE would be NON-VIOLENCE. If the USUAL RESPONSE is PARANOIA or DISTRUST the DIFFERENT RESPONSE would be TRUST. But VIOLENCE and DISTRUST still work for them in many circumstances.

      • Bob Bradley

        The USUAL RESPONSE is also called HABIT which is the most powerful force in the universe… mostly because people aren’t aware of it. And if they do become aware of a habit it’s so built into their reactions that they can’t change them anyway. Habits makes us into mechanical beings. They make behaviors predictable and outcomes strained and boring.

        The DIFFERENT RESPONSE angle is a good one. But I’d suggest that you reconsider going for the OPPOSITE RESPONSE and go for a variable response. Think of it like a scale that goes from 10 to 1 where 10 is extreme violence and 1 is passivity. 2 is concern. 9 is rage. 5 is a balanced, thoughtful and considered, response. Something like that.

  • bl2d

    Maybe Carson should do an AOW for scripts about reality shows. I had one just land me a manager.

    • Linkthis83

      8/7 Central??? Congrats man!

      • bl2d

        Yeah. Thanks.

        • Midnight Luck

          Wow, that is incredible. Congrats!

    • S.C.

      Yeah, way to go!

  • Jack F.

    “So you have this show here where contestants hooking up with crew can destroy the entire production. So there are real stakes to people getting together who shouldn’t be together.”

    Right on. Kind of like how if Rick and Ilsa hooked up in “Casablanca”, the French Resistance in Morocco would have been screwed.

  • Poe_Serling

    From Carson’s review, Unreal sounds a wee bit like a live-action version of the popular animated kids’ show Total Drama Island which airs on the Cartoon Network.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Big fan of the wicker woman.

  • Midnight Luck

    I don’t find much of what is said to be true.
    Maybe it isn’t true only for me.

    I find any show that lacks a TRUTH as a central conceit to be unilaterally boring and vapid.
    I have no interest in “Reality” TV specifically for this reason. Even the fact they. call it reality when it is all fake and manipulated leaves me bored and angry.

    I have never had any interest in Soap Operas, specifically for this reason. They are fake and try to elicit emotion through manipulation.

    All these kinds of shows are just BORING to me.

    If you want to watch a fun, well written show making fun of stuff like this, forget a. crap show like is (you might as well just watch The Bachelor), instead rent SOAPDISH with Kevin Kline and Robert Downey Jr.
    Now that is funny and great.
    (In fact Unreal sounds exactly like someone just took Soap dish and reformatted it for reality TV and slapped a new name on it. Only with less ingenuity. )

    This show, sounds like bamboo under my fingernails type pain.

    • Midnight Luck

      Reality TV is just Soap Opera spelled differently for a new generation.

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      You continue to be the most interesting person who partispates at this site.

      • Midnight Luck

        Well thank you for that. I wasn’t looking for praise, but still, it is a kind thing to say.

        I personally though think Mules and Poe and Link, along with a very varied group of others, have much more interesting things to say here than I.

        But again, I appreciate your comment.

        • Linkthis83

          Speaking of kind things to say…

          Mules and Poe for sure. I’m the random emotional ranter who throws in some groan-worthy jokes and part time script feedback/notes giverer. But still, I appreciate this…thanks.

          • Midnight Luck

            hey, you and me both.

            “I’m the random emotional ranter who throws in some groan-worthy jokes and part time script feedback/notes giverer”

            –I think that is a perfect assessment of my contribution as well. Though I may be more Ranter and less Helpful feedback.

            But I do my best.

    • Magga

      Yeah, now the world of the lowest form of TV becomes the source material for TV drama. I’m telling’ ya, the Golden Age of TV probably ends May 17

      • Midnight Luck

        Straight line from Golden age to Stoned* age, in one step.
        *Stone

  • Michael

    “Never write about reality TV!”

    This concept might be taboo for television, but Hollywood had no problem putting it in feature form. It worked great for The Truman Show and you could argue Network draws heavily on the same concept.

    Half the programming currently on air is some version of reality television, whether it’s Survivor, The Voice, Cops or Swamp People. Not only do you have the drama in the show and behind the scenes, you have the spillover into real life. In real life, contestants who have been on these shows become famous, infamous, commit suicide and even murdered other contestants. When you think of how manipulative these shows are, how Machiavellian the producers can be and how life altering the effect on the contestants can be, the real question is why it’s taken so long to produce a show based on reality television? There is layer upon layer upon layer of drama to be exploited; storytelling doesn’t get better than that.

  • mulesandmud

    The phrase ‘Reality TV’ is one of the great oxymorons in the history of language. That alone almost justifies a show about it.

    It’s true that for a long time, studios were actively disinterested in projects about reality TV. On the movie side, it always felt like execs fancied themselves too important to play in that muck. On the scripted television side, I think there was a general widespread fear that the public would one day see exactly how this junk gets made, but said junk has become so ubiquitous now that the fear is mostly gone.

    On the other hand, for as long as the genre has existed, reality TV crews have known that what goes on behind the camera is always more dramatic and entertaining than what happens in front of it. I’ve spent a good chunk of time both worlds, so I speak from experience.

    This subject combined with this network almost certain guarantees a pretty shameless melodrama, which sounds about right for the material.

    Film and television sets are hotbeds of melodrama. A large group of people of vastly different skill sets, experience levels, political views, and success levels are forced to work together together for an extended period of time, often in some distant locale where the only company they have is each other. Unity of time, place, and action; Aristotle would approve.

    Add to that, reality television exists on the fringe of the industry. Many of the productions are non-union and produced on a shoestring budget, so these crews are often filled with dangerously inexperienced folks who lack the professionalism of a big budget movie crew and yet are asked to do more for less, juggling roles and working crazy hours, usually for substandard pay.

    (Make no mistake, there’s plenty of drama on big movie sets too, but the departments are much more compartmentalized and the crew members are generally more jaded, so emotions tend not to run as hot.)

    Anyway, the result is pretty much what you’d expect from cramming dozens of strangers into close quarters in an isolated, ongoing, high-stress situation: lots of clashing, bonding, fighting, and fucking.

    Good times.

  • ThomasBrownen

    Off topic, but did I see that New Coke just sold? Wasn’t that an AOW entry? Congrats to the author!

    • Poe_Serling

      New Coke… “Wasn’t that an AOW entry?”

      Yeah, just back on Feb. 5 of this year.

      http://scriptshadow.net/amateur-offerings-11/

      But I don’t think it is the same project.

      The ‘New Coke’ project being touted today in the trades is from the writing duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – the guys behind the scripts for Zombieland and Deadpool.

      • Gregory Mandarano

        http://deadline.com/2015/04/new-coke-deadpool-paul-wernick-rhett-reese-1201417236/

        They didn’t write the script. They optioned a book about it, and plan to write the script. Makes you wonder if they read the AOW and decided they could do it themselves. That or it’s just novelty theory – the idea was out there – so it trickled into the hands of people with the connections to do something about it.

        • Poe_Serling

          “…it trickled into the hands of people with the connections to do something about it.”

          The optioned book by Thomas Oliver has been out there since 1986 – I’m sorta surprised that the movers and shakers in Hollywood haven’t tried to tackle this project sooner.

          • klmn

            Maybe the new trend will be to option case studies from the Harvard Business School.

          • IgorWasTaken

            And to add a meta element, maybe there’s a case study on why the Lego Movie worked but Battleship didn’t – and then that could be a movie.

          • Gregory Mandarano

            Well surprised or not, I’m sure the person who wrote the coke biopic and submitted it into AOW is pretty pissed at the moment. HOWEVER – multiple biopics can get made on the same topic. It’s up to that writer to try to make his execution as excellent as possible and circulate his script while there’s buzz about the project but before their script is finished. If news came out about another Band biopic, I would have a heart attack.

  • Poe_Serling

    I saw your comment on the Bloody Disgusting website about Kurt Russell In the Horror Western “Bone Tomahawk.”

    Classic!

    • tyrabanksy

      A girl can dream.
      (About Kurt Russell).

      • andyjaxfl

        I love Kurt Russell. I wish he didn’t vanish for the last decade, but it’s nice to have him back.

        • Poe_Serling

          http://downrightcreepy.com/news-articles/first-look-kurt-russell-mounts-up-for-bone-tomahawk/

          I’m really excited to see Russell back in the saddle, and the film’s teaser poster ain’t half bad either. ;-)

          • andyjaxfl

            Thanks for the heads up. I didn’t know it was out there! None of the old movie news sites have offered much coverage on the project, which I think is pretty shocking since KURT FREAKIN’ RUSSELL is in this movie.

          • Poe_Serling

            Plus, he has a role in Tarantino’s upcoming film The Hateful Eight.

            2015 is shaping up as a banner year for KR fans!

  • Somersby

    If anyone has this script and wouldn’t mind sharing, I’ll put you in my will (mind you, that ain’t necessarily a GOOD thing!) Thx.
    anvil [at] total [dot] net

  • D’Brickascript

    I’d love to read this if anyone would be so kind. DBrickashout@gmail.com. Thanks!

    • jeaux

      Ha. D’brickascript Ferguson is that you? How’s the offseason writing going?

    • S.C.

      Sent!!!

  • S.C.

    Sent!

  • S.C.

    Sent!!

  • S.C.

    Sent!!!!