Watching the second season of “UnReal” is like doing shots while riding a roller-coaster — a lot of dangerous ideas are careening around, and things could go off the rails at any moment. But what a bracing thrill-ride it is.
As was the case with the show’s debut season, which significantly boosted the reputation of Lifetime’s scripted programming, “UnReal’s” second go-round begins in highly addictive fashion, even if some of the gut-churning swerves in the new season’s first two episodes carry a frightening degree of difficulty. But it’s the show’s willingness to simultaneously plummet into dark places, plunge ahead with social commentary and provide pitch-dark satire that makes watching it such an exciting experience. Reality producers know you don’t want to be bored, and “UnReal” follows that mandate.
Not satisfied with targeting just the various kinds of misogyny lurking in the TV industry with its combination sledgehammer-and-scalpel approach, “UnReal,” in its new 10-episode season, adds race to the mix. This time, the eligible bachelor on show-within-a-show “Everlasting” is a famous black NFL quarterback, Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), and the contestants vying for his attention include a white Southern woman who wears a Confederate flag bikini and an African-American social-justice activist who tells executive producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) that she doesn’t have time for the show.
“Black girls only last a couple of weeks on those shows and they don’t get any airtime,” says the activist (Denee Benton). Smirks Rachel, “I thought you said you didn’t watch.” She knows just how irresistible her cleverly manufactured product is; after all, she’s the feminist who’s making a show that objectifies women and constructs slick entertainment out of their desires for fame, love, and attention.
Like the producers of “Everlasting,” the contestants have a basic understanding of how the show’s machinations work, and try to use its tropes to their advantage. And yet Rachel, a master manipulator, is able to effortlessly prod the women into fighting each other for camera time, even as she contends with the entourage and ego of Darius, who has P.R. problems he’s trying to fix. But the jockeying for position on camera is nothing compared with the epic power struggle behind the scenes. The set of “Everlasting” is like Westeros, but with more headsets and walkie-talkies.
Rachel and her mentor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), start out partying and getting BFF tattoos together, but somehow, despite the longed-for promotions both received at the end of last season, their unsettled relationship continues to fuel much of the show’s drama. This year, Rachel is supposed to be the showrunner, and Quinn is looking forward to having a more hands-off producing role, in which, as she puts it, she will “say crazy sh*t, and you make it happen.” In the “UnReal” universe, where the only constant is instability, the new division of responsibilities doesn’t last long.
The show’s creator, Chet (Craig Bierko), returns from a Paleolithic fitness retreat with a desire to transform “Everlasting” and rescue the production from the “harpies” that he contends have drained it of its primal male energy. Though Bierko is terrific in the role, Chet is written into a somewhat cartoonish corner this season, and it remains to be seen whether his personality transformation will get the kind of shading it needs to seem entirely believable. One of the strengths of the first season of “UnReal” is that very few characters, including the contestants, ended up being one-dimensional. Chet could have been the fall guy who did everything wrong, but last year, the drama gave his arc a surprising amount of believability and depth. Thus it seems odd that the impulsive but savvy exec would suddenly believe that a very mainstream network would want its dating show to begin resembling a “Girls Gone Wild” video.
Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable to see Chet spar with Quinn, whose every line is spun into caustic gold by the fantastic Zimmer, who makes her character’s frustrated ambition relatable and her scarred emotions seem entirely justified. Her blunt verbal bombs are always a treat (she dismisses Darius’ friends as “side dicks” and calls the pompous host “our moron”). But she’s not all sarcasm, all the time. When she witnesses Rachel prompting her own protege, Madison (Genevieve Buechner), to go to a very twisted place while questioning a contestant on camera, Quinn beams with pride.
Should viewers be happy that Rachel has ended up almost as relentless and calculating as Quinn? It’s a thorny question the show is wise not to fully answer. What is certain is that the Quinn-Rachel relationship has emerged as one of the most complicated and fascinating bonds on TV, now that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman of “Breaking Bad” are gone.
The two women’s intelligence and conniving ways have paid off for them, but every attempt to scale the ladder creates more problems. “It turns out being a sexist man-baby on my set has consequences,” says the newly powerful Rachel to one scheming department head, but who wants to guess whether these resourceful but outnumbered women will be able fend off every attack on their autonomy? Or even half of them?
It doesn’t help that Rachel’s still struggling with mental-health issues and with how things shook out with her bitter former boyfriend, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), and the hunk who starred in the previous season of “Everlasting,” Adam (Freddie Stroma). There are also a few mentions of her mother, but in the first season, that storyline was “UnReal’s” weakest element. To hint that Rachel’s problems can be laid at the door of a controlling and nightmarish mom always felt far too simplistic for a show that prides itself on layering all kinds of ambiguity into its characters.
With or without Rachel’s family drama, however, Appleby certainly has the chops to make her character’s crises of confidence, wounded tenacity, and flashes of self-awareness fascinating. Her Rachel, like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano or Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, is the product of a performance that oozes versatility, deep commitment to the role, and an easy charisma that invite audiences to invest in a character who, in anyone else’s hands, would most likely be unbearable. Just the way Rachel rolls her tired eyes at stressful moments can indicate so many things: In Appleby’s hands, one look can connote fear, exhaustion, annoyance, anger, and grudging amusement.
At least there’s a theoretically admirable goal driving Rachel this season: Now that she and Quinn have finally gotten the network to greenlight a black “Everlasting” bachelor, she’s leaning hard on the assumption that anything she does to draw eyeballs to the show, no matter how amoral or gross, is appropriate. Pitching the new bachelor to the network, Quinn asserts that “the minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down.” It’s hard to argue with her reasoning, and everyone charges forward telling themselves that raising the nation’s racial consciousness will result in higher profits. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything, probably, and that’s more or less the point. There are so many ideas bouncing off each other and colliding in the new season that viewers may occasionally long for a quiet moment or two, but presumably things will settle down a little once the setup is out of the way. In the meantime, “UnReal,” like “Master of None” and “Black-ish” among other shows, is smart to acknowledge that nothing is really ever settled or resolved when it comes to the messy intersections of race, gender, class and the media.
After all, there’s one golden rule in television: Whoever has the gold makes the rules, and that truth may well end up breaking apart the shaky solidarity of Quinn and Rachel. It might be depressing to see the show end up depicting a full-on war between the women as they fight to preserve their own careers and futures. On the other hand, it’s realistic to reflect the bleak truth that women and people of color — and especially women of color — are often pitted against each other as powerful corporations (represented in “UnReal” by a network exec played by Christopher Cousins) reap the profits from all the juicy conflict.
Watching Quinn and Rachel observe each other as they both try to play a game that’s rigged against them brings to mind another carnival analogy — the fun-house mirror, which is, of course, misnamed. It’s not all that enjoyable to see your reflection pulled and distorted into unsettling shapes — but neither, ultimately, is constructing on-screen “reality” and off-screen relationships that feel unbalanced, false, or incomplete. Maybe the mirror is lying, or maybe it’s telling the truth. After years inside the fun house, is it possible to know the difference?