In the 1959 noir masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster tells Tony Curtis, “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” This insult could easily apply to the two anti-heroes of UnREAL: Its wounded and wounding protagonist, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), and her acid-tongued mentor, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer).
Both characters begin this season with a lot more power than they’re accustomed to. Rachel has taken over Quinn’s role as Everlasting showrunner, while Quinn has usurped the head honcho role from Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko). Although the first season ended with Quinn dropping an atomic bomb on Rachel’s potential happy ending with Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), this premiere finds our ladies in full girl-power mode. They get matching tattoos on their wrists listing their priorities: “Money. Dick. Power,” in that exact order. They look like a united front, but looks can be deceiving. UnREAL excels at peeling back glittery surfaces to reveal the rot beneath.
The men in Rachel and Quinn’s lives are their most immediate obstacles. Chet rampages back onto the set, eager to regain his kingdom. He’s lost 50 pounds by getting rid of drugs and booze, but he retained his gross sense of entitlement. Even worse, his crazed paleolithic retreat has made him a men’s rights activist. Chet didn’t actually create Everlasting or have much of a hand in its success. That was all Quinn. But when has reality ever gotten in the way of his ego?
Rachel isn’t doing so hot. Jeremy is still pissed about her cheating ways and how she embarrassed him. Again. It’s an understandable reaction, but staying in contact with Rachel’s mother to get under her skin is a step too far. He can play it off like Rachel is the real enemy. But exchanges like this one prove that Jeremy’s even worse than she is:
Jeremy: I’m actually okay with you hurting yourself. In fact, I’m fairly certain you will.
Rachel: That’s a really dark thing to say.
Meanwhile, UnREAL has gotten ahead of reality itself: The new Everlasting suitor, Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), is a black man. That’s something the real Bachelor has yet to do. A charismatic pro quarterback, Darius agrees to join the show to rehab his image. In other words, he’s smart enough to understand the perilous territory he’s walked into — and how he might use it to his advantage.
We meet Darius when Quinn and Rachel travel to Las Vegas. They’re trying to butter him up, along with his crew and the network executives. It may be business, but this hedonistic extravaganza wouldn’t seem out of place in The Wolf of Wall Street. (A more diverse version, that is.) Quinn is slurping down champagne. Rachel is snorting copious amounts of cocaine, and she even has sex with Darius’s cousin-turned-manager, Romeo (Gentry White). Sure, that’ll work out okay.
There’s an edge to these scenes, a suggestion that Rachel is caught on dangerous ground. Her line of work means she can’t escape her demons. Conniving exes. Incredible stress. Drugs. Reckless sex. Getting a call from Adam certainly doesn’t help, even though she ignores it. And Quinn may seem like a friend, but she’s just as much a hazard.
Of course, Rachel is too busy to think about that minefield. She comforts herself with the knowledge that she’s making history, that she’s responsible for putting the first black suitor on television. It’s a neat excuse, and she trots it out whenever she does something heinous or things seem like they’re about to go off the rails. Rachel’s job is to spin fairy tales out of tragedies. Is this just another lie?
Darius isn’t as easy to manipulate as Rachel hoped. Like every black person in America, he was raised to understand that he must be twice as good as his white peers to earn half of their success. Rachel convinces him she can fix his PR nightmare — calling a female reporter a “bitch” — since she did the same for herself. After she asks what his mother thinks about his decision to join Everlasting, Darius has a great monologue:
My mom was not happy. See, she raised me to always know the rules would always be different for me. Couldn’t walk down the street with my hoodie on. Didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. Kept my nose pretty clean. Keep my image squeaky clean. No drugs. No drama. No baby mamas.
It’s pretty daring for UnREAL to wade into questions of sex and black identity, as ripe as the subject matter may be. The show is deliberately wading into thorny issues. I’m interested to see how successfully these racial dynamics will be written as the season goes on. The show has already positioned itself to ask some tough questions: How does race affect dating? How secure are powerful positions for women? What’s the price of intimacy?
Anyway, enough about the men. First and foremost, UnREAL is about the ways women relate to each other. With Darius locked in, Rachel has to contend with a slew of other issues.
We meet Ruby (Denée Benton), an Everlasting contestant who is meant to fill a stereotypical role that America loves to see. As Rachel puts it, “She takes angry black woman to a blinding rage.” Ruby is too smart for that. She doesn’t want to commit to the show anyway, since it would conflict with her schooling. Jay realizes that he cannot force Ruby to play along; that’s a line he won’t cross. Rachel, on the other hand, doesn’t face any crisis of conscience. When she travels to Ruby’s school to change her mind, the wheels are already turning in her head. She has answers to all of Ruby’s questions. Don’t most black women get cut by episode three? Rachel promises she’ll end up in the finale — and the suitor is already interested in her. Won’t the show derail her goals? Of course not, she replies. It will give her a platform to discuss social activism. And how will Everlasting make her look? Well, television can change lives. And just like that, Rachel proves just how sickeningly good she is at her job. She’d make a great con artist.
“War” also gives us an aside with the Pakistani contestant, London (Sunita Prasad). She refuses to wear a headscarf; she won’t play along with the producers’ racist agenda. Like Ruby, London has to contend with ugly expectations that come with being a woman of color on a show that automatically devalues her.
Aside from Ruby, the contestant who most interests me is Yael (Monica Barbaro). She’s already been dubbed “Hot Rachel.” Yes, that means exactly what you think it does: She’s the hotter, less messed-up version of Rachel. The first time the real Rachel hears about her, she’s baffled by the nickname. Jeremy explains: “She’s the one who kind of looks like you. But hot and not crazy and actually takes showers from time to time.” Can someone just punch this guy?
Rachel may be Jeremy’s boss, but she can’t fire him. That’s a sexual-harassment suit waiting to happen. So she does the next best thing: She cans an important member of his camera crew. It’s a pretty great moment, if only to see him get put in his place. The premiere is packed with moments like this, all acted to perfection by Appleby and Zimmer.
However, the episode’s best scene has to be Madison’s on-camera interview with Chantal (Meagan Tandy). Chantal is a beautiful, black, Southern debutante, whose poise hides a dark secret. Madison is out of her depth during the interview, so Rachel feeds her lines. With that help, Madison gets Chantal to tearfully spill her guts. Her fiancé died in a car accident a year and a half ago. Chantal was driving. Madison asks her if she’ll ever love again. “I will love again or die trying,” she says. That’s basically UnREAL’s tagline.
Despite her early struggles, Madison gets a thrill from the interview. As all these shifting roles come into focus, it’s clear that Madison is becoming mini-Rachel. It’s a savvy development, which underscores the show’s interest in matriarchal inheritance, the knowledge women learn from each other.
Rachel knows what she does is an ugly business, but she also knows she’s really good at it. When you have so many scars, it’s easy to spot the ones that other people hide. Appleby embodies the dichotomy that lies in Rachel’s heart: She is both a weapon and a wound. And that’s never more clear than when she’s around Quinn.
After Chet wins Darius and Romeo to his side, he starts undoing all of Quinn’s hard work. Of course, this is only possible because Chet is buddies with Gary, the network president. The good ol’ boys club is alive and well, folks. Chet essentially torpedoes the first night’s shoot — it’s tough to introduce the new suitor when he’s gone rogue — so Quinn takes over as showrunner to right the ship. Rachel begins to unravel, realizing that she doesn’t have as much power as she thought. And so Quinn strikes a compromise with Chet:
Chet: Let the best man win.
Quinn: She usually does.
Clearly, Quinn will put anything on the line to maintain control — even Rachel’s sanity. The real love story of UnREAL is between these two women. It’s a valentine wrapped in barbed wire. But with power up for grabs and festering wounds unhealed, will they ever get a happily ever after?