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How Real is Lifetime's 'UnREAL'? A Reality Producer Tells All

I've got a hot date with my hubby tonight. It involves popcorn, dropped jaws, and the season finale of Lifetime's cult hit, "UnREAL." If you haven't seen the show, it's a scripted drama about the making of a reality dating series that's very, very similar to "The Bachelor." It features backstabbing cast members, manipulative producers, and a whole lot of crazy.

"UnREAL" is the rare TV experience that my husband and I can enjoy together, because it combines the juicy catfights of the mommy porn I watch (i.e. Real Housewives) with the intrigue, drama, and, um, sex, that interests him.

But there's another reason I've been glued to "UnREAL" all season. Before having my kids, I was a reality television producer for 10 years. I love seeing my old job portrayed—and milked for maximum drama—on TV. When I'm watching at home, I'm constantly shrieking, "Pause!" so that my husband can stop the DVR in time for me to blurt out "That would never happen!" or "That would totally happen!"

I've also been getting lots of texts from friends asking, "Is 'UnREAL' for real?" Here's how I answer their questions:

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Q: Do producers really take cast members aside and tell them how to act when the cameras are rolling?

A: Sometimes. Reality is not documentary. There isn't always time to wait for things to happen naturally. Producers help guide the action by working one-on-one with key cast members. It can be subtle—say, crafting an interview question to plant seeds of doubt, like "Do you think Britney is really here for the right reasons?" Or a producer might be more direct, offering, "If it were me, I'd confront her about being so selfish." You're not telling a cast member to do something they would never do in real life—you're just giving them the kick in the ass to do what their heart desires, which of course will make great TV.

Q: But is it all fake? I mean, how can two people fall in love in six weeks while cameras are rolling?

A: It's definitely not all fake. The extreme circumstances involved in shooting a reality show—especially one where the cast members are living together in a house, away from their normal lives—produce fast results. The contestants are sleep-deprived, they're drinking too much alcohol and the situation is so surreal that they can develop deep passions—and enemies—practically overnight.

Reality shows often involve travel, severely long hours and major stress. These intense conditions tend to produce a lot of "showmances" or "locationships" between crew members.

Q: It seems like way more sex is happening behind the scenes than on camera. Are reality show crew members really doing it with each other all time?

A: Yes! Reality shows often involve travel, severely long hours and major stress. These intense conditions tend to produce a lot of "showmances" or "locationships" between crew members. Most of them don't last once the season is over.

Q: Do shows really employ an on-site therapist, like the one on "UnREAL?"

A: Absolutely. These shows put cast members under a lot of pressure. Therapists are there to help contestants who are struggling, or comfort those upset about being eliminated.

Q: Would a cast member like Mary, who was biopolar and suicidal, ever wind up on a show like "The Bachelor?"

A: Unlikely. Reality show cast members are usually rigorously prescreened. They have to pass psychological exams and background checks. Producers want them to bring the TV kind of crazy—not the clinical kind. That's not to say producers don't get surprised, as with "Real Housewife" Kim Richards' alcoholism or Josh Duggar's criminal past.

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Q: Do showrunners really offer cash bonuses to producers who bring home juicy stories, like Quinn did with Rachel?

A: I haven't heard of this. In my experience, bosses are more likely to motivate using negative consequences—like the threat of firing. I worked on one MTV show where each week, four producers were sent out to cover stories but only three of the stories would be chosen to air on television. So we were heavily motivated by the fear of failure.

Q: Would a talented producer like Rachel really be going days without a shower, sleeping in a trailer on a set?

A: I'm afraid so. The bulk of reality television budgets are definitely not spent on accomodating the crew. I once spent six weeks sleeping in a control room—the room with all the video monitors where producers watch the action on set. I did not smell great. If you know any reality producers, please offer them a glass of wine.

The "UnREAL" season finale airs tonight on Lifetime. If you have any questions about how reality TV gets made, leave them here and I'll answer in the comments.

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Image via Lifetime Network

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