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UnREAL and the Pressures of a Sophomore Season

Shiri Appleby and Freddie Stroma in UnREAL’s season one finale. Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime

UnREAL finished its first season Monday night, wrapping up a fantastic year with a finale that seemed to turn the focus toward next season. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are returning for the show’s second season, and Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro have promised the show will “[stick] with Everlasting as a format.” That still leaves a lot up in the air, though, like who else exactly will be back, and if that format might be flipped, Bachelorette style — or even as Everlasting: The Whole Package, as Rachel tried to pitch. The prospect of season two of UnREAL inspires enthusiasm, but, as any TV fan knows, a sophomore season also inspires a bit of concern: As strong as the first season was (very), there were some weak spots, and last night’s “Future” highlighted several.

Take Chet. He’s not among the show’s best characters, and he’s often so cartoonish that it’s hard to find emotional truths in the scenes he’s in. His relationship with Quinn is the romance that makes the least sense on the show, even including the very contrived, phony pairings within Everlasting. Quinn doesn’t want to be cheated on, and fair enough — but it’s an odd standard to suddenly have after years and years of being Chet’s mistress and knowing what a grade-A slimeball the dude is. If you want to date a skeeze, date a skeeze, but it’s strange to see the otherwise very-together Quinn operate with a 22-year-old’s sense of, “No no, I’ll change him.

But at least Chet can be wild, unlike Jeremy, who is a chest-hair sandwich. His down-on-one-knee FU was a soapy delight — except it came out of nowhere. He hasn’t seemed like a big fan of spectacle before, and his reaction to being betrayed seemed very out of place for someone who had himself recently cheated on his fiancée. Easy does it in that glass house, folks. Showing up at Rachel’s mother’s house was also a low blow, though consider the ways Rachel is behaving: She’s complicit in covering up the actual causes of a woman’s suicide, she had an inappropriate workplace romance, she does not have reliable housing, and she’s now pitching a reality show about people who have jobs. Maybe she is unstable; maybe she does need help. Jeremy’s motives read as malicious and manipulative, but the idea that this humanoid henley could out-manipulate Rachel? Please.

Jeremy’s not a match for Rachel, and Adam might not be either, but at least he represents an interesting refraction of her. He, too, has a toxic relationship with his family; he, too, has been shunned for bad behavior; he, too, has had a sex tape released against his wishes; he, too, claims to be playing the game of Everlasting, even as it sometimes seems that he and she are the ones getting played. Watching Rachel watch Adam watch the bachelorettes amplifies their similarities and zeroes in on their differences — in far more detail than we ever get when it comes to Jeremy and his thoughts. If season two doesn’t involve Adam, I’ll understand, but I’ll be sad. He brings something out in Rachel we don’t otherwise see, even if neither he nor she is sure that’s a good thing.

In general this season, Rachel and Quinn have been at their most interesting when they’re playing puppet masters because they’re really skilled at it, and also because of the dramatic tension created by thwarted expectations. As the star of the show, Rachel’s inherently interesting because she’s someone in crisis, someone who isn’t sure who she is, and isn’t sure she likes herself; she’s pretty sure she doesn’t, actually, and we see these tiny referendums in every interaction she has. But Quinn is less consistent. Her stories outside the production realm don’t have the same flare, and her frustrations with Hollywood and its various bullshitteries feel like stories that would be at home on far lesser series. Can show-business bosses be evasive, nasty, or unhelpful? Oh, I’m sure of it. But there are so many “Hollywood is full of douchebags — and they’re all in charge!” stories. We have so few “I am a closeted lesbian on a dating reality show, which should seem bad but might actually be helping me grow into the person I want to be” stories.

UnREAL is good at a lot of things, and the show’s most intriguing aspects are also its most unusual. The show can poke at ideas about the performance of identity because its characters are truly performing identity in the context of Everlasting. Can you be a sad, waify type without being the Sad, Waify One? For Anna, maybe not. Are you a bitch if you’re just playing the Bitch? Everlasting becomes a metaphor for the artificiality of romantic love, the conflicting stories we tell ourselves in this context: “Yes, we kissed, but it wasn’t a thing.” Or, “No, nothing happened, really, except there was this moment.” “I’m not usually the kind of person who’d say this, but …” If Rachel tricked you into saying something, you didn’t really say it — or maybe you did, actually. Decontextualizing and fabricating are different — or are they the same?

That’s where UnREAL’s potential lies: in its ability to be about a lot of things at once. It is a fun soap in a lot of ways, it honestly scratches that Bachelor itch, it’s a twisty workplace drama, and it’s also about the commodification of love and the stifling rigidity that arises when systems try to commercialize social behavior. One can only hope season two is about those things, too. And more.

UnREAL and the Pressures of a Sophomore Season