tv review

In Its Third Season, UnREAL Returns to Form

L-R: Caitlin FitzGerald, Shiri Appleby, and Constance Zimmer.

UnREAL is an unreal TV series that creates its own reality. Probably 95 percent of the Lifetime drama takes place on and near the set of a Bachelor-like unscripted series called Everlasting. The remaining sliver of action that occurs off-site is staged for the show’s benefit, to manufacture additional melodrama — or, as the program’s showrunner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) calls it, “Good TV.” And yet this dreamlike bubble feels as complete in and of itself as Sunnyvale, Deadwood, and the Twilight Zone.

UnREAL, which returns to TV after an 18-month hiatus tonight, has always been (intentionally) coy about what kind of show, exactly, these folks are producing, and how, well, real it is. Sometimes it seems as if the ginned-up romantic competitiveness that unfolds before the cameras is being gathered and edited for subsequent broadcast. Other times it seems as if it’s being aired every night, like an old-fashioned mini-series “event,” and still other times it seems to be happening live, not for the amusement of whatever hypothetical audience is watching Everlasting, but for us. (We’re the only people who get to see literally everything that happens; one of the unaddressed running jokes on this series is how many important things happen when none of the show’s cameras are around to capture them.) It’s best to think of the entire thing, both Everlasting and UnREAL, as a voyeuristic social experiment that shouldn’t be taken too literally — something along the lines of the “reality” series featured in The Truman Show (“Cue the sun,” orders Ed Harris’s showrunner Christof) with flashes of the Village from The Prisoner. It’s a setting for case studies, or parables, that explore psychology and morality in a world with its own distinct cosmology and view of human nature.

It’s sometimes tough to tell who’s more in control of the experience: the “cast,” who are chosen by the producers for their good looks and easily marketed personalities; or the behind-the-scenes storytellers, including ace producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and series creator Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko), who stir the pot, then watch from the control room and chortle with delight when things go as planned, or press the panic button when they don’t. During every season there are points where the boundary separating the two worlds gets breached, usually because a god took a fancy to a mortal in an office, a dressing room, or in the back of a grip truck. Who’s the god and who’s the mortal depends on which person is emotionally in control.

At its best, UnREAL works on multiple levels simultaneously. It comments on the relationship between TV, the people who make it, the people who watch it, and the society that enfolds it, even as it delivers the base pleasures that even the most high-minded TV fans crave: the power struggles and double-crosses; the friendships and relationships that blaze to life or flame out; the sudden, at times brazenly provocative, plot twists — like the two suspicious deaths that ended last season, caused by Josh Kelly’s cameraman Jeremy to protect Rachel, that loom over this new batch of episodes like vultures.

Season one was a nearly perfect object, at once sincere and ironic; it seemed to have a complete sense of itself from the opening minutes of its pilot. Season two strained after significance, stirring in too many ripped-from-the-headlines elements (including material dealing with racism and police brutality) that the writing wasn’t sophisticated enough to support. The dip in quality was so drastic that it constituted a meta-narrative twist all its own. Based on the five episodes sent out for review, season three – led by Stacy Rukeyser, who was formerly a writer-producer on the show – is an impressive, sometimes stirring, return to form. It moves briskly from moment to moment and always thinks simultaneously about the visceral pleasures it’s providing and the thoughts it’s planting in our heads.

In the best tradition of “just use it,” Quinn and Chet are trying to rebound from a disastrous season of television that left the viability of the production in doubt. Quinn is worried that she won’t be able to franchise her way out of this dump and become the queen of her own empire like Chet, a blowhard man-baby (seemingly modeled on Mark Burnett) that Rachel describes as having built his fortune on the backs of women who cover for his incompetence. Chet wants to be recognized as a legendary TV auteur, the kind of cultural giant that graduate students write theses about. Meanwhile, the now penitent and celibate Rachel, who’s just returned from a stint with a nature cult that herds goats, prizes radical honesty, and encourages its members to meditate while floating face-down on the surface of a lake.

The new season of Everlasting is built around Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald), a tech venture capitalist described as “the female Elon Musk,” who goes on Everlasting to find a husband and very quickly establishes her unwillingness to play by the show’s rules. She digs through trash to assemble a dossier on the various bachelors, Googles one of them with a cell phone borrowed from a crew member, and threatens to instantly cut another contestant, a jockey, for being too short, because she’s more interested in getting what she wants than giving Quinn, Rachel, Chet, & Co. what they think the show needs. The staff psychologist, Dr. Simon (Brandon Jay McLaren), seems to be serving a lot of different masters at once, looking after the well-being of the cast and crew, but also providing the former with actionable information on the latter.

This isn’t just a show that is aware of itself as a show; it’s one that seems forever on the verge of devouring and digesting itself: a lucid dream that interprets itself as it goes. There are many borderline age-inappropriate relationships behind the scenes — older men and younger women, of course, but also an instance where the genders are flipped. These reinforce UnREAL’s interest in All About Eve dynamics, both natural and forced, that keep occurring in workplaces, despite the advent of #MeToo, as well as the mating rituals and relationship clichés that nonfictional humans can’t seem to escape, and that pop culture keeps spoon-feeding to viewers in the guise of escapist spectacle.

Serena isn’t as compelling a protagonist as either Everlasting or UnREAL needs, but her Tracy Flick–like machinations throw a series of unprecedented wrenches into the production that, in turn, prompt crises that test the people who make the show — in particular Rachel and Quinn, who are at loggerheads over the messages sent by the very existence of Everlasting. Rachel takes issue with Quinn pressuring Serena to dumb herself down to seem more attractive to the suitors, a gaggle of macho signifiers that also includes a firefighter, a Russian ballet dancer, a Wall Street bro, and a race car driver. (When the latter sings “America the Beautiful” for Serena, Quinn dubs it “red-state crack.”) Rachel accuses her boss of “pumping toxic sludge into the minds of young women,” while Quinn insists “I’m not doing a symposium on gender politics,” even though that’s what UnREAL itself often is, when it’s not tormenting its characters for our amusement. There are many things that happen that would never happen on a real unscripted show, and sometimes people say things around Quinn that would get them fired from a real show. We let it pass because the “realness” of the entire enterprise is fungible, and because, like Quinn, if forced to choose between plausible behavior and good TV, UnREAL prizes good TV every time, with a wink and a grin and sometimes a middle finger.

UnREAL Returns to Form in Season Three