One of the things “UnReal” was most lauded for in its early days was its depiction of women as messy and frustrating. The lesson the show has yet to fully learn is that those qualities can be great when woven into nuanced character studies, but sloppiness is less appealing as the foundation of a TV narrative, which needs to have depth and discipline even if — especially if — its characters and their agendas are spinning out of control.
“UnReal,” which follows the behind-the-scenes drama at a dating reality show called “Everlasting,” seems to be tracing a pattern that a lot of unscripted shows follow: It made a big splash early on with some provocative and highly entertaining risk-taking, but then it fell into a series of well-worn grooves that occasionally yield dividends but nearly as often disappoint the faithful. Unfortunately the Lifetime show has never quite lived up to the potential of its gleefully knowing first season.
After a fairly disastrous end to the show’s second season, the third provided the opportunity for course correction, but in the first five episodes made available to critics, “UnReal” frequently travels down predictable paths. I’m not quite ready to give up on it, but some of those installments feel like mechanical continuations of Season 2, re-introducing tired dynamics among characters the show probably should have cut or re-thought long ago. I can’t imagine any “UnReal” fans hoped that Jeremy would return, but he’s back, along with bloviating executive producer Chet, conniving former P.A. Madison and some new supporting characters who are useful without being necessarily additive to the show’s appeal.
Of course the main focus is on Rachel and Quinn, who remain locked into questionable personal and professional patterns and careen into the usual series of obstacles as they try to break TV’s glass ceiling, which increasingly seems to be made of Teflon. Rachel, who has embarked on a course of “radical honesty,” is pulled out of a rural self-care retreat by Quinn, who needs her key lieutenant’s killer instinct for the new season of “Everlasting.” Will Rachel return to her lying, manipulative ways? There’s no suspense in that question, yet Shiri Appleby continues to find ways to make Rachel’s self-doubt and corrosive pain watchable, even when the scripts don’t necessarily help her with that task.
The hook for the new season is that “Everlasting” has a female “suitress” instead of the usual studly suitor. Caitlin Fitzgerald plays Serena, a high-powered tech executive who really does want to find a mate and clashes with both producers as she tries to determine the best way to do so. Fitzgerald, so underrated in both “Rectify” and “Masters of Sex,” does an excellent job of portraying Serena’s mixture of insecurity, intelligence and high-handed arrogance. Unfortunately she can’t mitigate one of the show’s most unfortunate qualities: A tone of airless nastiness that often envelops the show and its characters.
“UnReal” posits that this is just the way TV productions are, and the industry is certainly not for shrinking violets. But whether or not all reality-show employees do their jobs within a miasma of resentment and betrayal, “UnReal” would be more effective if it did a better job of varying the kinds of tones and moods it deploys. The drama seems to assume that the sight of three white women slinging cutting insults at each other could not possibly ever become tiresome. But as a white woman who enjoys bitchy lines — up to a point — “UnReal” generally overestimates my tolerance for sour, bitter exchanges and the entertainment value of Quinn’s continual verbal abuse of her staff. Constance Zimmer does wonders with the other kinds of colors she’s allowed to play, but she’s not given enough variations to explore, and that represents a major missed opportunity.
To be clear, I don’t need anyone in “UnReal” to be all that likable, but it would be a welcome relief if the people in this story displayed a wider, more surprising array of interpersonal dynamics. It’s a relief when that finally begins to happen a bit more toward the middle of the season, even if the arcs of key storylines are far too easy to predict (the consequences of Rachel’s rash decisions are usually obvious well before they arrive).
“UnReal” purports to be about ambitious women, and when it approaches that theme with thoughtfulness, it can be witty, acute and entertaining all at once. But it’s hard not to wish the show employed the kind of discipline shown by the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which has a similar focus on mental illness, the costs of co-dependent relationships, and the ways that contradictory expectations lead women into self-sabotage and depression. During its three seasons, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — which also energetically deconstructs Hollywood tropes about women and what they want — has used its flamboyant flourishes to deepen the pathos of the lead character’s situation; she never quite knows how much to blame herself or her circumstances for the damage she causes. Watching Rebecca Bunch’s journey into the center of her foundational wounds has been transfixing, in part because the show has created relationships and cathartic moments that contain genuinely earned emotions, even — or especially — when the show is at its most fanciful and outrageous.
In the third season of “UnReal,” there are indications that Rachel is willing to plunge into the root causes of her problems, which include some dark revelations that align with the mood of the #MeToo era. There is also an ongoing mystery about what, if anything, will come to light about the deaths that occurred during the end of Season 2, but that element of “UnReal” is not nearly as interesting as its intermittently bracing explorations of the way women undercut or support each other in the zero-sum games they’re forced to play.
Ultimately, Rachel and Quinn will need to decide what kind of women they want to be, just as “UnReal” will have to figure out what kind of drama it wants to be. Sometimes it has a pretty clear idea, but at other moments, it doesn’t appear to have a solid fix on anything but the idea that everyone lies to get ahead. But that’s something viewers of reality TV learned a long time ago.