Things are getting unreal on The Bachelorette. Or, more accurately, they’re getting UnREAL.

That’s the title of the new fiction series on Lifetime about the inner workings of a reality dating series clearly based on The Bachelor. UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as a producer on The Bachelor for several years, and whether or not UnREAL is incredibly close or very far from the backstage wheelings and dealings at The Bachelor, it feels awfully authentic to the show’s milieu. Producers sit in a command center, shaping characters (including stock Bachelor types like “the villain” and “the virgin”) and barking orders to underlings who work to subtly manipulate the emotions of contestants in order to ensure drama in front of the camera.

For a very long time, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette resisted every urge to acknowledge these sorts of behind-the-scenes machinations. It rarely showed crew members or cameramen onscreen. It played every twist and turn as genuine and authentic. It tried its damnedest to present itself as the sincere, well-intentioned journey of a woman who truly wants to find love by simultaneously dating 25 men at the same time. Nope, nothing weird or false about this; it’s totally real! And it’s all about finding love, not about manipulating and warping reality to suit the needs of weekly episodic television!

It could be a coincidence, but one of the most interesting things about this season of The Bachelorette, which has been airing concurrently with the first season of UnREAL, is the way it’s finally begun to peek behind it’s own carefully guarded curtain. On occasion, The Bachelorette’s shown this season’s most insecure contestant, Shawn, consulting with a producer about his mixed feelings toward Kaitlyn. He’s made repeated reference to some “off-camera time” he had with Kaitlyn, where she revealed her true love for him. After Kaitlyn had her infamous (and apparently spontaneous) overnight date with Nick, cameras caught her discussing the situation with another crew member on her balcony, in scenes that at least appeared to have been shot without her knowledge that she was on camera. These sequences could be staged for the cameras just like every other date, cocktail party, and rose ceremony. But they at least hint at the artificiality of the entire Bachelor universe in a way the show rarely has before. The intrusion of a fictionalized version of reality into this fictionalized version of reality has finally forced this very unreal show to get more real. If that makes any sense.

Actually, this week’s Bachelorette, which aired mere hours after Lifetime announced they were picking up UnREAL for a second season was one of the least meta this year. There were fewer mentions of off-camera time, and no supposedly stolen shots of conversations between the onscreen characters and their offscreen handlers. Most of the drama, manufactured or otherwise, continued to center on Shawn and his feelings for (and insecurities about) Kaitlyn. Shawn doesn’t like the other primary competitor for Kaitlyn’s affections, Nick. He dislikes him so much, he won’t even say his name; throughout the entire episode he calls him “The Other Guy.” Shawn continues to struggle with the idea that Kaitlyn is dating other men, even though the entire premise of The Bachelorette involves a woman dating other men, and so he keeps talking about his feelings and his issues and whether or not he can trust her.

In a certain sense, Shawn is right to be nervous, because Kaitlyn is not only dating other guys, she’s had sex with another guy, and specifically The Other Guy, Nick. After dragging this secret out for as long as humanly possible, Kaitlyn finally confesses the truth to Shawn during the uncomfortable conclusion of a group date that saw Kaitlyn also send Kentuckian Joe home moments after he told her he loved her. (Did Seinfeld teach you nothing Joe? You have to be confident in the “I love you return”!)

The Bachelorette is built on a foundation of awkwardness, so it’s saying something to note that this was one of the most awkward conversations in the show’s history. Kaitlyn did nothing wrong when she hooked up with Nick; that’s what The Bachelorette is about. (“I’m a grown woman. I can do what I want,” said Kaitlyn, correctly.) But Shawn also isn’t wrong for being a little freaked out about the whole thing; any man (or woman) would be hugely uncomfortable in his shoes. This is exactly what he signed up for, so he’s got to be cool with it, a fact he basically admits when he shrugs and tells Kaitlyn “I can’t be mad, right?” and then adds “Obviously I am; what am I gonna do, storm out of here?” If he storms out, he loses the girl and looks like a judgmental jerk on national television. It’s a no-win scenario. At times like these, The Bachelorette reminds me of the famous line from War Games: “A strange game; the only winning move is not to play.”

No wonder this week’s episode concluded with a showdown between Shawn and Nick after Nick’s Fantasy Suite date with Kaitlyn (where they reportedly stayed up all night talking and eating chocolate). Shawn calls Nick “manipulative” and “arrogant” and Nick says he could say the same of Shawn, to which Shawn replies “I think you’re s---,” before this week’s not-particularly-exciting cliffhanger. My goodness, will they keep yelling at each other? I must tune in to find out if they continue to use obscenities in each other’s general direction!

At this point, it’s shaping up to be a real feel-bad season of The Bachelorette. The three men Kaitlyn has left are Shawn, Nick, and Ben. Every time Kaitlyn dumps another guy, or tells another guy that she slept with Nick she seems so sad, and she generally spends more time fretting, moping, and crying than any past Bachelors or Bachelorettes I can recall. She seems to like Nick, but also feels guilty about going “too far” with him too fast. She also seems to like Shawn, but maybe not quite as much as he likes her, and he seems all kinds of insecure about the whole love rectangle he’s now trapped in. Where is the happy ending that The Bachelorette always tries to find in its improbable journey to love? If UnREAL has taught me anything it’s that there’s one here somewhere; we just can’t see it yet. And that’s all by design.

Additional Thoughts:

-The question I keep hearing from readers is “Who is going to be the next Bachelor?” At this point, the only really viable option seems to be Ben H., the only one of the three finalists who isn’t constantly sniping at the other two. Ben’s handsome but not too hunky, and seems like a nice dude. Shawn and Nick have spent too much of this season looking petty to get the nod, and the only other guy it could possibly be, Jared, has maybe the patchiest beard in television history. So my guess is Ben, unless he wins, in which case it could be Jared, unless he refuses to shave his face.

-Joe, I’m not saying you can’t be in love with Kaitlyn after spending a couple hours with her, but man, how many dates did you even have with her? I could be mistaken, but I don’t think he even had a one-on-one date with this woman. He had a 2-on-1 date with her and JJ, and Kaitlyn did pick him to stay, but she didn’t even give him a rose! Can you imagine telling a woman you loved her after hanging out with her in a group situation on four occasions and then spending an awkward afternoon with her and another guy?

-Line of the Night: “Mmmfffmmhmm.” That was Shawn reacting to Kaitlyn’s revelation that she slept with Nick. First he nodded, then nodded more, then rubbed his mouth with his wrist. (That’s where the noise came from.) Then he sighed and shook his head some more. It was like watching someone work his way through all seven stages of grief in 20 seconds.

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