Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Last year, I came away impressed with Lifetime’s dark new drama series UnREAL – far more than I ever expected to be going into a show that centered around the backstage drama of a fictional reality dating show called Everlasting. The debut season was searing and satisfying, but it took depth and finesse – both of which UnREAL has in spades – to eventually become what the opening hours teased; to become what I hoped it would after viewing the first three episodes: something truly special.
UnREAL season 2 is the fine-tuned realization of every one of my hopes last year. Co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro don’t miss a beat in transition, bobbing and weaving through every potential upset presented in the show’s premise with a ferocious energy. The caged-beast anger makes sense, too: Shapiro was a producer on The Bachelor for nine seasons, which the writer admits made her mentally and physically ill, to the point that she felt like she was “dying inside.”
With that target at the center of its dartboard, UnREAL bites back at redundancies with something of a terrifying precision, cleverly inverting power dynamics (Madison is the new Rachel is the new Quinn is the new Chet) and blowing up expectations in the process. The show – somehow dense and frothy, ominous and hysterical – is so damn fun to watch that it reaches the disruptive heights of Rachel’s desperately sought-after “televised revolution” on more than one occasion.
And yet it still works as a brain-off, chair-back, yummy morsel of casual summer fun. This season is backed by the mantra of “Money, Dick, Power,” made tangible when frenemies Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) get matching tattoos of said motto early on in the premiere. The drama of last year is behind them, so they say, and they’re ready to disrupt the airwaves once again – this time by bringing on the network’s first black suitor, Darius (B.J. Britt), a playboy quarterback in much need of a PR makeover.
When the network scoffs at the idea of a black lead on a reality dating show (which, you guessed it, has never happened in 14 years of The Bachelor), Quinn argues that he’s “not that black, he’s like football black.” Not to mention the 20 million viewers and trend-ready Twitter hashtags promised to explode at the announcement. With greed in their eyes, and debaucherous drama in their hearts, the big-wigs say yes. As trickily topical as ever, UnREAL not only makes the debut of a black suitor seem subversive, but skewers the idea that real world executives haven’t clawed at the opportunity for such a ratings boost in nearly two decades.
That’s the backdrop of UnREAL season 2, but the real turmoil still centers around probably-should-be-hospitalized Rachel. She’s desperate to prove her worth as the new showrunner of Everlasting, but can’t seem to turn off her dark-side powers of mind manipulation for five minutes in order to let new underlings, like Madison (Genevieve Buechner), handle some of the grunt work.
In one of the premiere’s best scenes, Madison sits interviewing one of the new contestants, asking softball questions and getting no good promo soundbites. So Rachel jumps in, evil Gepetto style, and guides her protege in deconstructing her mark brick-by-brick – a dead fiancé serves as the wrecking ball – until they’re both left sobbing. But UnREAL won’t even let its most innocent-seeming bystanders out of its calculating grasp: Madison loved it, is addicted to Rachel’s mind trick drug, and wants to do it again. There’s real depth and shock to these moments, and they work twofold because everyone on screen is so nicely cast and game to embody such loathsome people.
Bit players from last year get more to do this time around, including Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), who isn’t a fan of Rachel’s new regime change and brutal attempts to make Everlasting a success. That’s especially when it means convincing a well-to-do college student (Denée Benton) to drop out in her final semester and join a reality show just to be the token blacktivist in a sea of airheads. Of course, that’s what makes Appleby so brilliant to watch: she’s cold and calculating and utterly convinced in – and desperate for – her work.
She’s what makes UnREAL tip over into the premium cable-feel side of things. She’s so compulsively (perhaps unhealthily) good at her job that there are moments where the character stirs up echoes of Don Draper or Tony Soprano – people who are willing to succumb to their passion so fully that it threatens their sanity and very lives. Appleby navigates it all with grit and nuance, rocking the bags under her eyes as much as her freewheeling, middle-finger opinion on everything, and everyone, not directly related to Everlasting.
Just because Quinn is out of the showrunning game doesn’t mean she’s out of the picture, either. More than ever, the two are nearly inseparable and relentlessly bickering. Rachel wants Quinn to trust her completely and be hands-off, but Quinn isn’t ready to risk her team – and by turns, her – looking bad on her first season in the driver’s seat. When Rachel screws up big time in the premiere, the frenemies once again slide closer to enemies, even when they have to ward off an encroaching return by paleolithic reformer Chet (Craig Bierko), who’s ready to take back the reigns of Everlasting from Quinn.
If Appleby is the heart of the show, Zimmer is its cocked fist, taking down colleagues and cast members with all the ease of Rachel’s minions but with an added depravity: she doesn’t need to. It’s not her job – she just enjoys it. The two are UnREAL‘s one-two punch of endearing cynicism, somehow fueling the show with a light frothiness despite being its cold-hearted, enigmatic core. Zimmer also gets the scripts’ funniest zingers, like when a contestant is well aware of the black suitor but doesn’t become embarrassed about her Confederate flag bikini until she realizes he’s a famous black suitor (whom she loves). “Racism is so confusing, isn’t it?” Quinn asks the girl, who’s crying in a robe on the toilet.
Those are only a few of UnREAL‘s neatest aspects; in its totality, the show is backed by scripting and staging – which must be a nightmare with this many levels of storytelling – so fluent and natural you never once think about the behind-the-curtain part of a show that’s entirely focused on such concepts. But really, the biggest win of season 2 is that the creators have figured out how to balance the darkest aspects of the series – last year’s disturbing shocker is truncated to five syllables and promised for a numerical return by Quinn, who calls the impact “suicide ratings” – but they also remember that the show itself, the one we’re watching, needs to be as breezily bingeworthy as the empty-calorie cotton candy show at its center.
They nailed it: UnREAL‘s opening season 2 hours are foreboding and ominous, but never sepulchral. You want to spend time here, to see what the characters do and say, rather than high-tail it at the earliest opportunity alongside the newest crew of rejected contestants. The series can be enjoyed on a higher, premium-cable-quality plane, particularly when it comes to the destructive female friendship at its core, but it’s also a whipped-cream blast full of prickly dialogue and verbal take-downs. I’ll be surprised if anything else this summer this side of Mr. Robot surpasses it in terms of sheer, entertaining verve.
UnREAL works so well because it's dense and dark if you want it to be, and a feisty blast of pop culture deconstruction if you just want to turn your brain off for an hour; either way, this is Best of the Year material.