UnREAL airs Mondays on Lifetime.
You’d be forgiven if you wanted to pretend the second season of UnREAL, the Lifetime series set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-type reality show called Everlasting, just never happened. The “previously on” recap that ushered in the third season premiere at the end of February was nuttier than a king-sized Reese’s: A reporter visits the set to investigate the death of a contestant in the previous season, threatening to expose the so-called suicide as a murder. A vengeful producer, along with a contestant who turns out to be an undercover reporter, threatens to bring down Everlasting altogether by exposing its creators’ many transgressions to the press — until cameraman Jeremy (Josh Kelly) intervenes by forcing the producer’s car to crash. You see, Jeremy isn’t quite over his producer ex, Rachel (Shiri Appleby), despite having punched her in the face in a drunken altercation. Anyway, the vengeful producer dies in the crash, and so does the reporter. Problem solved.
Meanwhile, Everlasting cast its first black “suitor,” which gave way to a tangle of #problematic white-savior storylines on UnREAL. Rachel, whose psychiatrist mom did a real number on her, struggles to maintain her mental health — even though her boss and mentor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), recognizes that Rachel is most effective as a master manipulator of reality contestants when she’s miserable.
And that’s a wrap on Season 2!
Even UnREAL’s writers seem to know that their satire, so promising when it premiered in 2015, had gone off the rails: When the third season begins, in a bit of meta-commentary, the Everlasting producers are scrambling to undo the effects of the bad PR the program endured on its last go-round. Rachel is tending goats at a rehab retreat, and has — ironically, considering her professional duties demand that she lie to Everlasting’s lovesick hopefuls in order to generate nonstop conflict — committed herself to a “healing practice” she calls “radical honesty.” Of course, minutes into the premiere, Quinn has convinced Rachel to saddle up for another wild season.
The twist this time is Everlasting’s first female suitor, or “suitress,” a wealthy businesswoman named Serena, played by the excellent Caitlin FitzGerald. From the get-go, UnREAL has used its premise to interrogate what the showrunners have called reality TV’s “princess fantasy.” That’s prompted in part by the seemingly contradictory fact that an overwhelming segment of The Bachelor’s audience is made up of relatively educated and well-off women — just the demographic one might expect to scoff at the idea of cosplaying the retrograde rituals of romance that are The Bachelor’s stock and trade. Serena appears to be just that kind of woman, wrestling with Rachel and Quinn for control over the show’s direction, and in the first episode, preferring her own demure navy dress to the glittery, skin-tight number the producers have picked out for her.
The invention of Serena makes sense from a narrative standpoint; she’s an easy conduit for the UnREAL writers’ ideas about how smart women so often have to dumb themselves down to win men’s attention, and how difficult it can be for a powerful woman to allow herself to be vulnerable. (And Serena has the gall to be a single woman over 30. “Thirty-two?” a male producer laments when he learns her age. “Can’t we say she’s, like, 29?”) But it’s hard for me to believe that a businesswoman so successful that her photo is on magazine covers would willfully participate in a show like Everlasting — just as it gets harder with each season to understand why Rachel keeps going back to a job that is literally ruining her life.
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UnREAL has a tendency to shout its message a little too loudly, although there are moments when that can be satisfying — and those moments almost always involve Quinn. Appleby is excellent as the troubled but charismatic Rachel, but Zimmer’s potty-mouthed, ball-busting exec is the highlight of the show, a reason to watch all by itself. Her methods may be unscrupulous, but Quinn is an admirable character — a woman in a man’s world, trying her damndest to hold onto what leverage she has by doing the work. “If you want to earn real power and respect, you're gonna have to step into your balls and grab it,” she tells a young producer who’s sleeping with a much older executive. “Be your own woman, not somebody else's bitch.”
Quinn may occasionally inspire, but she’s also responsible for pushing Everlasting’s producers and contestants into evermore compromising positions that will, of course, make for great TV. As frustrating as UnREAL can be, I’ll never tire of the joy of watching Quinn observe the action from a monitor and bark out orders like, “She's boring, Rachel. Go make my pussy wet, now!”
It’s fun to watch how the sausage is made; UnREAL’s showrunner, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, really did work on The Bachelor, and she brings convincingly depraved detail to the inner workings of Everlasting. But despite a marked improvement on the last season’s inanity, Shapiro seems far too inclined to give into the pressures dictated by UnREAL’s own meta-narrative, as if Quinn were a devil on her shoulder, whispering wicked ideas guaranteed to shock. There’s still too much plot, too many twists and revelations, as if the writers don’t trust the premise and characters to be engaging without pumping them full of artificial adrenaline.
UnREAL posits itself as a critique of a noxious strain of lowest-common-denominator entertainment, yet it too often seems to have bought into the same philosophy as Everlasting when it comes to what makes a show worth watching: fucked up women who get in each other's way, lying, backstabbing, lots of illicit sex, mental health issues that go untreated, murder. At its best, UnREAL takes viewers on a wild trip, like an all-access pass to an amusement park. But it’s my third ride on this roller coaster; I’m considering jumping off.