The first season of Lifetime’s UnREAL made for ideal summertime viewing, both for fans of The Bachelor and for people who would rather set their pinkie toes on fire than sit through a rose ceremony. An addictively juicy yet sobering look at what happens behind the scenes on a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting, it offered all the hissy-fit-in-a-hot-tub allure that gives the reality-TV-matchmaking subgenre its escapist appeal. Because it was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, herself a former producer for The Bachelor, it also offered something to viewers who have always raised an eyebrow at the sexist, faux fairy-tale narratives propagated by such shows. “We know you think The Bachelor is bullshit,” UnREAL seductively whispered. “So come on in, and let us show you just how bullshit it is.”
The second season of UnREAL, which begins Monday night at 10 p.m. on Lifetime, continues to work from that same multilayered template, but with even more confidence and a greater sense of ambition. While the series still addresses the thorny issues involved in creating realitainment mired in gender stereotypes, and has a hell of a good time while doing it, it expands its focus to tackle something new: racism.
In a pointed dig at The Bachelor, which, during its 20 seasons, has never cast a black man as its lover-in-chief, this season of Everlasting features its first-ever African-American suitor. His name is Darius Beck (B.J. Britt, previously seen on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), a marquee NFL player who decides to woo a bevy of women on national television in an attempt at image rehab. (Darius is facing PR problems primarily because of his ill-advised use of the phrase, “Bitch, please,” during a confrontational interview with a female sports reporter.)
As season two begins, both Quinn (Constance Zimmer), now overseeing the Everlasting ship sans the interference of its bombastic creator (and her ex) Chet, and Rachel (Shiri Appleby), promoted by Quinn to the role of showrunner, are congratulating themselves for casting Darius, while making commitments to network executives they may not be able to honor. “I promise you 20 million viewers,” Quinn says during a phone call with one particularly jittery Everlasting overlord who’s concerned about centering the show on a potentially volatile dude of color. “The minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down.” She promises a hilariously absurd contestant field that includes a “hot racist,” an “even hotter black activist power person,” and a terrorist. Of course, it’s on Rachel to find all those contestants, or at least find contestants that can be manipulated to look like they’re hot racists, activists, and/or terrorists.
The making-it-all-happen part is what gives UnREAL both its sizzle and the opportunity to surprise us with something rarely found in the “real” reality genre: a sense of nuance. In the second of two episodes made available to critics, Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), a twangy Southern gal who Instagrams photos of herself in Confederate flag bikinis, refuses to don that good ol' Dixie swimsuit for the Everlasting cameras, especially once she realizes that Darius Beck will be the season’s big prize. “I was not raised to be rude,” she explains to Rachel. Responds Rachel: “Racism is so confusing, isn’t it?”
To UnREAL’s credit, Beth Ann is not your stereotypical Hollywood-created, trailer-park dirtbag of hate. She’s nowhere close to woke, but she’s at least aware enough of the concept of wokeness to know that it would be insensitive to walk around with the General Lee’s paint job splayed across her chest. Now, does she wind up wearing that bikini anyway because Rachel does one of her manipulative magic tricks on her? Well, I’m not going to say, but if you’ve seen how Rachel operated in season one, you can probably guess the answer yourself.
In season one and, from what I’ve seen so far, season two, UnREAL remains admirably insistent on emphasizing the complexity and intelligence of its characters. Shapiro and co-creator Marti Noxon and their team constantly deliver evidence that Everlasting is fake and vapid. But they also make it clear that everyone on Everlasting is a complicated human being whose motives for being involved in the enterprise of smoke-and-mirrors matchmaking are just as complicated. The so-called “black activist power person” who winds up vying for Darius’s attention, a bright college student named Ruby (Denee Benton), is there to spread her racial-equality message. Madison (Genevieve Buechner), the underling from last season who oral sexed her way into a field producer job, seems completely undone when she has to interrogate a contestant about her dead fiancé. And yet, in the most devastating scene in Monday night’s episode, she reveals there’s something about the exercise of teasing out people’s pain that truly invigorates her. Everyone on this show is broken in some way, and there’s something about Everlasting that repairs them, or at least provides some therapy.
That’s truer for Rachel than it is for anyone else. Even though she opens the new season with a fresh sense of purpose — in the opening scene, she and new bestie Quinn get matching wrist tattoos that itemize their life priorities: “Money. Dick. Power” — it doesn’t take long before Chet reenters the picture and Rachel’s influence is weakened. Given how frequently and unapologetically Rachel does her Svengali routine on Everlasting’s wannabe wifeys, it should be satisfying every time she gets knocked down a peg. But Appleby continues to deftly play her as a conflicted, troubled woman who wears her hard-nosed Everlasting producer hat like a steel helmet, enabling the audience to want to shout at her and root for her, often in the same moment. In that sense, she’s the perfect reality-show star.
While UnREAL may be delving into the racial fray this season, it’s still at its most compelling when it depicts the minefield that comes with being a woman in such an aggressively misogynistic workplace. The threats to female power come from men like Chet, but even more so, they come from other women. At one point, Quinn questions, to Rachel’s face, whether she’s really capable of being a boss, given her history of mental-health problems. It’s a moment that doesn’t just burn; it leaves a blister.
If there is indeed a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, Quinn, Rachel, and at least half the ladies on UnREAL are doing their damndest to get access to Satan’s VIP lounge. And that’s very good news for everyone who likes their summer TV soapy, smart, slightly Machiavellian, and eager to reveal reality showbiz reaching new levels of supreme B.S.