Hello and welcome to the third season of UnREAL, where we’ll all look into this rosy-hued funhouse mirror to see if Quinn can pull Everlasting out of its nosedive. And whether new showrunner Stacy Rukeyser can do the same for UnREAL itself. I’m your fill-in recapper just for this first episode, but I am more than ready to take on the challenge of answering the big question: Wait, what is happening on UnREAL now?!
You may recall where we left off in season two, with Rachel’s cameraman ex-boyfriend Jeremy committing manslaughter to protect Rachel and Everlasting. (Yes, that actually happened.) That crime binds Rachel, Quinn, Jeremy, and Chet together with a deep secret they have to make sure never gets out — otherwise Rachel will go to jail, Quinn’s career will be destroyed forever, and, uh, no consequence ever seems to happen to Chet but maybe this would do it? They decide to literally make a blood oath to keep their secret, and on this show it’s hard not to think that maybe they’ve now all given each other the same strain of chlamydia. Anyhow, I wonder if this pact will come into conflict with Rachel’s new vow to live her life with “essential honesty,” a cultlike lifestyle that involves floating in a sensory deprivation suit, living in a yurt, and never ever lying. I bet it’s going to be fine!
For this 15th season of Everlasting, in a bid to regain relevancy and win Chet an Emmy, Rachel and Quinn cast a Suitress rather than a Suitor. They decide to make their lead Serena, a “female Elon Musk — hot, sexy, smart, but single.” She has it all, but somehow has never managed to land a man, and for some reason she’s decided that the best way to accomplish that goal is via a season of reality television. I’m not sure how plausible it is that a female Elon Musk would come to the conclusion that the not-Bachelor is the best way to “maximize [her] dating flow,” but then again, many people died last season. Plausibility is not really the name of the game here.
From the beginning, Serena chafes against the actual requirements of being on this reality show, which feels like one of the most interesting and relatable aspects of UnREAL. A person agrees to be on the show, but still finds themselves completely put off by all the nonsense they’ll actually have to do; it’s a story that surely happens on every reality show ever made. Serena is aghast that she’s not allowed to Google all the guys she’s being set up with, and she complains about her first-night wardrobe making her look like “a stripper mermaid.” She wants to eliminate obviously unsuitable matches right away, including the very short jockey Norman. She doesn’t understand (or care) that Rachel needs Norman around for a few episodes of early storytelling. She toasts to “a superior and effective season.” I can see the appeal of making her the center of the show, especially if Quinn is indeed able to “rip that stick out from her ass,” but I cannot imagine why someone like her would actually agree to be on in the first place.
The group of contestant dudes don’t get much time for development — most of the episode is dedicated to Rachel’s return to Everlasting, Quinn’s efforts to put together a strong season, Serena’s introduction, and a half-dozen other minor plot threads that I’m sure will all get pulled on later. (Madison and Jay are both trying to launch shows of their own, Chet has a new girlfriend, and there’s something to do with network president Gary sleeping with Madison.) But the primary new guys are all in place. There’s Owen, a firefighter and military veteran who manages to sneak off with Serena for a very romantic-looking kiss. There’s Jasper, a smooth finance dude with a British accent. There’s August, who’s doing a manbun-inflected impression of Meryl Streep’s role in Out of Africa. There’s Alexi, an apparently straight ballet dancer with a coke habit (Jay: “We are so lucky we got him”). There’s also a cowboy type (Quinn yells, “FLYOVER STATES!”), and someone named Billy.
Serena goes through some first day of filming adjustment swings, from too uptight to too drunk, and from loathing Norman to sleeping with him, and then finally eliminating him in spite of Rachel’s explicit request that Norman stay. For me, the strongest parts of this first episode are the stuff to do with Serena. There’s her sense of wanting this show and also being trapped by it, which weaves into Rachel’s desire to play with the form and do a feminist version of Everlasting. There’s casting Serena as a Quinn stand-in, which both Rachel and Quinn want to play with but neither wants to admit to each other. These are the most interesting revelations promised by UnREAL’s premise — the human experience inside of reality television’s messy, awful manipulations, and the friction between the glossy overlaid narrative and the people who get swept up inside of it — and the parts I want to see most.
The issue is that UnREAL has all of that going on, but it also has everything to do with dark and twisty Rachel, Quinn’s various romantic and career entanglements, and Rachel’s parents, if the episode-opening promo is to be believed. Plus, the whole blood oath thing. It’s a lot. It’s probably too much. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see?
There’s still enough of the first season here to give me some hope. Quinn is in full ballbuster mode, and Rachel is functional even if she’s obviously a huge time bomb. And there’s more Rachel and Quinn (and Serena) than there is Chet, which is a relief. Most importantly, there are some potentially fascinating threads about how Quinn chooses to edit Serena and how they depict the audience as responding to her; I’m especially interested in Quinn’s choice to keep in Serena’s lines about being really, really good at her job.
I’m also encouraged by one of the other newbies: the new show psychiatrist, Dr. Simon. If the episode’s end is to be believed, he’s not actually there to supply dish on the contestants as potential story threads. He’s there “for Rachel,” whatever that means. If it means there’s a voice in the behind-the-scenes bits that actually keeps confidences, is interested in the inner lives of people for some purpose other than manipulation, or feels any investment in finding some kind of stability, I’m all for it. I understand that UnREAL is a show about things going off the rails, BUT especially after the disastrous turns of season two, season three is needs to anchor itself to some status quo. After all, going off the rails doesn’t mean much if there were never any rails to begin with. That stabilizing force could be Dr. Simon, or it could be an actually functioning season of Everlasting, or it could be a real partnership between Quinn and Rachel. It could even be this blood oath! But it needs to be something, or else UnREAL is going to find itself in the same dire place it was in last season.
But if Dr. Simon is there because he’s actually spying on Rachel as part of a twist because someone is loyal to someone else and blah blah blah … nah, I’m good. Eventually, those provocative surprises are just much less interesting than a story that takes its premise seriously. We’ll see which side UnREAL chooses this season.
One last point on this new season: I do enjoy how much its commentary on reviving Everlasting works as meta-commentary on UnREAL itself. It’s a very effective self-conscious nod when Quinn says something like, “Oh God, please let us have a great season.” Or when the entire premise of the new show is “What if we cast this lead for the season? Maybe this time we could get an Emmy!” Apparently, Everlasting can’t get any sponsors “because of the mess of last season.” You don’t say! Messy or no, it’s still interesting to think about UnREAL next to a show like Jane the Virgin, which is an intense but very loving self-referential look at a specific genre. (In Jane’s case, it’s the telenovela.) UnREAL is less loving and more self-loathing about its genre, and I’m curious how it’ll sustain such a long look at something it feels such animosity toward. Clearly, Rachel, Quinn, and Serena would be happier people if they loved themselves. I wonder if UnREAL would be a better show if it loved itself, too.