What’s Going on With UnREAL? A Mid-Season Assessment

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Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime

UnREAL emerged last summer as an addictive, surprisingly substantive drama that was able to do two things at once: keep audiences addicted with plenty of soapy, backstabbing, reality-show-style twists, and smartly force that same audience to consider how shows like The Bachelor reinforce outmoded gender stereotypes. It was a show about two-faced people that effectively maintained two faces of its own.

When UnREAL returned last month for its second season, it added racism to the list of things it would explore in a way that, based on the first two episodes, promised to plunge into the cesspool of reality television with potentially greater depth. But in recent weeks, UnREAL has lost a bit of its grip on the delicate balance it achieved so effortlessly in season one. As its protagonist, producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), continues to struggle with whether to remain loyal to Everlasting or to bite the hand that keeps smacking her down, UnREAL also is more noticeably grappling with what kind of show it wants to be. Tonally, as it passes the season-two midpoint, it’s tilting closer to frothy escapism than smart satire.

Monday’s episode, which came close, at times, to being a return to form, focused largely on the aftermath of Jeremy’s physical abuse of Rachel. After being violently struck by Jeremy, both her ex and the director of photography for Everlasting, Rachel tells Chet, the show’s creator, that she’s not going to be one of those women who stays silent; she’s going to press charges against Jeremy. Chet tries to talk her out of it, noting that going public could lead to the uncovering of secrets that have been tucked away from Everlasting’s ever-present cameras, including the fact that Mary’s death in the previous season was a suicide that occurred because of producer negligence. “You sure you want to do that to us?” he asks.

In the next scene, we see Rachel taking cell-phone photos of her various bruises in a way that’s reminiscent of the recently circulated images of an allegedly battered Amber Heard and of the pictures Rachel and Quinn took earlier this season of their mutually acquired tattoos; “Money Dick Power,” it seems, has now come to this. As captured by star Shiri Appleby, who directed this episode, it’s a bracing moment that suggests Rachel is finally mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. UnREAL is about to get really, really interesting.

Except then … it doesn’t, exactly. Rachel, understandably emotionally fragile, shifts her energy to producing the show and turning Darius’s visit to Beth Ann’s Mississippi home into hot-mess train-wreck television. Aware that she only possesses control of her life when she’s manipulating the narrative on Everlasting, Rachel eventually agrees with Chet and Quinn that there’s no point in pursuing legal action against Jeremy. Before the episode is over, she’s deleted all of those potential-evidence photos from her phone. Although she does get off, quite literally, on the idea that Coleman, her current lover and Everlasting’s showrunner, will help her find a new job after this round of the wifey draft, it doesn’t appear that Rachel will actually follow through on that, or even stand up for herself in the ways that really count. She’s stuck in a cycle she’s just going to keep on repeating, and the show, in some ways, is, too.

Just as they did last season, both Rachel and Quinn are relying on men as escape routes or to provide career boosts. There’s an intentional irony behind that behavior that’s pretty meaty — these two women are markedly cynical about the Prince Charming prospects for their contestants, yet somehow manage to slide on rose-colored blinders when it comes to their own love lives. But these relationships also feel repetitive and less developed than the ones Rachel previously shared with Jeremy and the soon-to-reemerge Adam, and the love-hate power jockeying between Chet and Quinn. Quinn’s romance with Ioan Gruffudd’s network mogul John Booth, in particular, has gone from networking meet-cute to extremely serious in less than a full episode’s time. You expect that kind of narrative leapfrogging from a prime-time potboiler or, yes, a reality show, but not from a Peabody Award–winning series, even one that’s playing with the potboiler formula.

This season, the contestants convey as more thinly sketched than they were in season one. Aside from Ruby, who’s already gotten cut, no one vying for Darius’s affections is as multi-dimensional or worthy of empathy as the women we met last year, like Mary, the mom dealing with the aftereffects of spousal abuse who ultimately killed herself, or Faith, the closeted Christian lesbian, or Anna, who ultimately won after being conned out of attending her father’s funeral. I honestly don’t care what happens to Hot Rachel. As for Jameson, the Chicago police officer who suddenly moved front and center in this episode, she might have an interesting backstory, but at the moment, her role feels like it got beefed up primarily to replace Ruby. As for Darius, UnREAL recapper Angelica Jade Bastién has made some insightful points about the way his body is being exploited by white reality-show producers. But I wish he contained more multitudes than the writers have given him up to this point. For a guy who supposedly has a reputation for speaking before his brain finishes sentences, he’s the tamest, nicest, best-spoken dude on planet Earth. 

Even some of the recent plot points stand out as derivative of what we’ve seen before. Last season, Chet dealt with his wife’s unexpected pregnancy. In this week’s episode, Beth Ann suddenly finds out she’s pregnant. I know that character is supposed to be kind of a rube, but who takes a pregnancy test and immediately walks up to their reality-show producer to show her the positive pee stick? Also, for the record, the father of Beth Ann’s baby looks more like a walking head shot than a guy who actually lives on a dirt road in Alabama. UnREAL has never promised to deliver actual reality, but before there was at least enough of a thin coating of authenticity to help us skate over the less credible moments. 

Yet, despite all of my complaints, there’s still enough hefty subtext, especially in this week’s episode, to keep me invested in seeing where things head in the remaining four episodes. It’s fascinating to watch Rachel go from accusing Quinn of offering false sympathy to faux-comforting Beth Ann without even considering her own phoniness. As that ridiculous “Mirror of Truth” exercise also implies, the people working in the world of “reality” have an astonishing lack of self-awareness.

There’s something fun, too, in watching that visit to Beth Ann’s Alabama town go so smoothly at first. “Where’s the drunk uncle?” Rachel asks as Beth Ann’s parents warmly welcome Darius to their home. “Where’s the KKK?” Rachel and her fellow Everlasting puppeteers are so used to dealing with stereotypes, they’re surprised to see people engaged in normal, polite behavior that defies their preconceived notions.

There also are a lot of preconceived notions about what reality shows and soap operas are about, and as a result, they have rarely been taken seriously. Last season, UnREAL extracted the juiciest tropes from those genres and remixed them in a way that deserved legitimate attention and analysis. While UnREAL is still an enjoyably escapist show to watch, it frustrates me to see it leaning so hard into those tropes right now. UnREAL may be on Lifetime, but, until recently, it was not your standard piece of so-called television for women. Hopefully the last four episodes of this season will reestablish that fact.