What is going on with UnREAL?
The scripted drama was a breakout smash for Lifetime when it premiered last summer, with a dark, unnerving debut season on a network new to the prestige TV game. The series centers on Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), producers and master manipulators behind the scenes of Everlasting, a romance-reality show in the mold of The Bachelor. Co-creators Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a veteran of the real Bachelor, and Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and many more) created an intellectually-stimulating, if emotionally-upsetting, chaser to the shot that was the ABC franchise their series satirized.
In in its first ten episodes, UnREAL both relished and reviled the fairy tale candyland of the show-within-the-show, toying with and subverting the happily-ever-after fantasy Rachel and Quinn were theoretically too jaded and intelligent to desire. UnREAL became Lifetime’s youngest-skewing series ever and nabbed a Peabody Award.
The second season seemed, at first, to raise the stakes: Everlasting would go where its real-life doppelganger had never gone by casting the show’s first black suitor, Darius (B.J. Britt), a professional football player in need of an image reboot after getting caught on camera telling a white, female reporter, “Bitch, please” during a post-game interview. UnREAL had demonstrated a nuanced understanding of a whole fleet of third-rail topics — mental illness, sex, suicide — and appeared poised to do the same in its sophomore outing.
But this whole season (the seventh episode aired Monday night) has failed to deliver on its promise. The handling of what is ostensibly the marquee issue of the season — race — has been uneven and altogether misguided. It’s not really clear what statement UnREAL thinks it’s making about race, beyond the fact that the producers of Everlasting are in way over their heads.
The crux of this season is that Rachel believes she can “change the world” through the vapid, soul-sucking Everlasting. The populist impulse is to say that Everlasting is a platform that can be used for good as easily as for evil. As long as millions are tuning into the show, Rachel justifies this to her colleagues (and herself) by saying that it is meaningful that the suitor is black because representation matters, and demonstrating to America that a black man is as worthy a love interest as a white man is a worthwhile endeavor. Rachel thinks she’s upending the social order; then again, Rachel is in an open relationship with reality, so.
In last night’s episode, “Ambush,” Rachel is still reeling from a physical assault by her vindictive ex-boyfriend and former co-worker, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), who was fired for the offense but not reported on to the authorities. She colludes with her new boss/boyfriend, Coleman (Michael Rady), after seeing Darius, his cousin Romeo (Gentry White), and two women from the Everlasting cast drive off the set. Rachel’s idea: Call the police to report the stolen car, then chase down the joyriders and film their sure-to-be volatile encounter with the police. The worst case scenario, she thinks, is the best case television: Revealing for the world how black men are really treated by the cops.
The incident is stuck at the end of the episode, almost as an afterthought. (A message shown on-screen at the top of the hour warned viewers of a scene involving race and police violence.) Darius is, of course, pulled over; because Everlasting cast members are supposed to be cut off from the outside world, he doesn’t have his ID or phone on him. By the time the cops tell everyone to get out of the car, Rachel has arrived with her camera. She films from a distance as the interaction between the officers and passengers grows more and more heated.
Darius insists he’s a famous football player, but the officers say they don’t recognize him. The women in the backseat are obviously drunk, which makes the cops even more suspicious. Once she sees the situation is escalating, Rachel runs out to interfere. But her entrance prompts Romeo to move. An officer, rattled, shoots Romeo in the street.
Rachel returns to the set, horrified at what she’s set in motion. One of her colleagues, a black producer, rails at her for her actions: “This was not your story to tell.” What was she thinking? Was she thinking at all? Minutes later we see Rachel on the phone with her mother, with whom she has a rocky and borderline-abusive relationship. By the episode’s end, Rachel has checked herself into a psych ward.
It is not the world’s most tasteful idea to shoehorn a police shooting of a black man in as a plot device for a white, female protagonist’s emotional development (or emotional unraveling, as the case may be).
The whole ten-minute stretch of the episode left me feeling disturbed, and not in a “good art makes you uncomfortable” way. Is that really the smart, thoughtful approach to telling a story about police brutality? Naturally the UnREAL staff had no way of knowing just how timely this episode would be, airing only weeks after the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. But it obviously was reaching for relevance here, and hoping to seem all kinds of finger-on-the-pulse about the times in which we live.
One thing is clear: In this particular climate, it is not the world’s most tasteful idea to shoehorn a police shooting of a black man in as a plot device for a white, female protagonist’s emotional development (or emotional unraveling, as the case may be). The sequence is probably intended as a critique of Rachel — a clear sign that she is spiraling from her assault and other personal issues, and that she’s mishandling her job at Everlasting — but really, it scans as the writers of UnREAL mishandling the actual show.
You can sense the commentary UnREAL is aiming for: Rachel, a white woman with a savior complex, thinks it’s her place to enlighten the nation about racism. Her chosen apparatus for this Stay Woke, America campaign is a deeply problematic reality show; she willfully ignores the fact that her job amounts to making puppets out of a black man and everyone around him.
Rachel is an antihero, and that’s all well and good. Fictional characters can, and have, displayed far more appalling worldviews. But everyone in UnREAL is morally compromised at best, bankrupt at worst. Even the voices of reason are unreasonable; take the higher-ups who tell Rachel that, obviously, they’ll fire Jeremy for beating her, but they can’t tell the police what happened because, as Chet (Craig Bierko) puts it, Jeremy “knows where all the bodies are buried.” As in, a literal body: Jeremy knows a producer messed with a cast member’s meds last season, which led to her committing suicide.
While season one offered the cast members of Everlasting real empathy and nuance, this year’s fleet of women are barely allowed to be more than the two-dimensional monikers they’re given by producers: The Blacktivist, The Alabama Racist, Hot Rachel, The Woman With The Dead Fiancé. Darius, who is supposed to have a problem controlling his behavior on camera, is a dull, perfect gentleman whether or not Everlasting’s cameras are rolling. Conflicts with potential, obvious adversaries — the girl who rolls up to the first pool party in a Confederate flag bikini, for instance — are contained within single episodes.
New additions to the cast, like replacement showrunner and Rachel’s unlikely-but-okay-sure-I’ll-go-with-it love interest Coleman read more like network notes than believable, vital characters. The most important relationship in the show is the one between Quinn and Rachel, and the season started with Rachel taking over as showrunner so Quinn could ascend at the network. That dynamic alone could have sustained a season, but instead Rachel was out as quickly as she was in because of some eye-roll-inducing drama between Quinn and Chet, her ex-lover and boss.
The show-within-the-show, meanwhile, is so boring and aimless that it’s a wonder anyone within the world of UnREAL is watching Everlasting at all. The “dates” are brief and pointless, with bizarre props and non-existent chemistry among just about everyone in the cast. Ruby, the Black Lives Matter activist whose feelings for Darius actually rang true, was cut at the end of the fifth episode, with half of the season still to go.
A recent New Yorker feature on Shapiro revealed that Noxon came back to UnREAL at the start of season two but left early on to focus on Girlfriends’ Guide. Throughout the piece, there are descriptions of tensions about what should and should not go on in the show: Network notes to writers involved “caution… against any pitch where Rachel doesn’t give a fuck about Everlasting” and also pushed for Jeremy’s return, something Shapiro resisted.
Maybe all of that goes a way toward explaining why this season, and the characters within it, seem adrift. Sure, Rachel gives a lot of fucks about Everlasting, but why? Other characters ask her that all the time. Her responses have never been less convincing. She doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing there. And neither does UnREAL.