Lifetime

How UnREAL’s Second Season Went From Ambitious Satire To Disappointing Soap

The critically beloved Lifetime drama squandered much of its promise in its messy sophomore effort

[Spoilers for Season 2 of UnREAL, including last night’s finale.]

Here are some things that you may have already forgotten happened in UnREAL’s shambolic second season: Two competing versions of Everlasting — one with jiggly bits in slo-mo, the other at regular speed — being shot for the networks. Quinn’s (Constance Zimmer) father dying. NFL player Darius (B.J. Britt) risking paralysis for a reality show. Rachel (Shiri Appleby) being hospitalized and very nearly raped. Season 1 Suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) returning to Everlasting for some goddamn reason. Chet (Craig Bierko) hunting animals with a spear, kidnapping his baby, and joining the men’s rights movement. And that’s not even approaching the Lifetime drama’s two lowest moments this year: the police shooting of Romeo (Gentry White) and the reveal that Yael (Monica Barbaro), a.k.a. “Sexy Rachel,” was a journalist who signed up for the show to expose its dark, dank underbelly.

How do you top death? That’s the question that co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who draws from her experience as a former producer on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, had to answer for her highly praised but low-rated show after killing off one of the Everlasting contestants in the first season. Naturally, Shapiro leaned into the social issues that earned her applause from critics and a Peabody Award. And then UnREAL took its own dive off the roof.

Season 2 didn’t arrive DOA. It started with a promising novelty, that of a black Suitor on a network dating show, and an auspicious shake-up of the behind-the-scenes status quo, as Quinn handed over showrunning duties to the disastrously unstable Rachel. In a pre-season interview, Shapiro told me that she was also interested in “exploring the fantasy of what it’s like when women try to live like men.” But the first few installments looked at the opposite of that fantasy — at the male balkanization that often forms around female ascendance — in a story line that rang brutally true.

It didn’t take many episodes, though, for it to become clear that the current season devolved from satire to soap. What’s the difference? In this case, a coherence to its themes and critiques — or the lack thereof. Sometimes there’s a fine line between a TV show that’s densely packed with meaning and one that’s just flinging everything the writers can think of at the screen. UnREAL crossed that line early this year — then continued running toward chaos. The show’s prioritization of crazy twists over careful characterization, too, contributed toward a season where too many things were occurring to really land — and thus to matter. In the end, all that ambition undid itself, with the series reproducing the very racism and sexism it had intended to expose.

Lifetime

Like Adam, UnREAL’s male cast members outlived their purpose at the end of Season 1. Bringing back Chet and Jeremy (Josh Kelly) — the return of the latter apparently a network suggestion—- was a mistake, and added extra soured-romance story lines in a year that had already intended to pair up Rachel and Quinn with new love interests. The ways in which those two women were then asked to switch loyalties made them the new Lucious and Cookie — a caustically codependent pair whose fondness for each other is situationally variable. And thus UnREAL exploded its most fascinating and original relationship on something as disposable as boyfriends. To add insult to injury, Rachel and Quinn don’t even seem like they’re good at the one thing they’re always supposed to be the mistresses of: their jobs. With an MIA suitor, no one to root for, and a finale wedding that broke all the rules of the show, the most revolutionary season of Everlasting looked simultaneously bare and disorganized. And as callous as they might be, a part of even the audience-within-the-show must’ve revolted against a contestant shitting herself in front of national TV. (Even the fetid trash-swamp Bachelor in Paradise didn’t show black-out-drunk Chad actually pooping his pants.)

Quinn and Rachel weren’t alone in their inconsistent characterization. While Season 1 investigated the real people behind the reality-TV archetypes, Season 2 was barely interested in either the Suitor or the competitors. And while that would be simply bad storytelling on a theoretically all-white show, it’s more disappointing when black characters are introduced. Like Rachel, Shapiro might lightly pat herself on the back for creating television history by featuring a black romance with some wanly progressive shading. But the exploitative use of police shootings in the seventh episode — and the utter lack of dramatic follow-through, in which we have no idea what Romeo, Darius, or Ruby think about the event or how it affected them — renders that whole well-meaning plot, well, racist. “How many TV shows and films utilize black pain solely for white characters to learn from their mistakes?” asked Angelica Jade Bastién in an UnREAL recap. As my colleague Ira Madison III noted a few weeks ago, “[Rachel’s] little experiment ends up with Romeo shot by a police officer, but the episode ends with her grief, her sobbing, her realizing that the man she’s fallen for, new producer Coleman Wasserman, might have even gone too far.” It’s not enough for characters of color to get “woke” points; they have to feel like people, too. But because Season 2 tried to cram 20 hours’ worth of stories and pivots and points into half as many episodes, they came out half-formed and mangled.

If there were a significant feminist critique unique to Season 2 — and I’m not convinced that there was one — it was largely undone by the show’s trotting out one of the hoariest and most misogynistic clichés that won’t go away: the sexy female journalist who gets her story by sleeping with every possible source around. For a series that essentially declared “this is what a feminist TV show looks like” with its opening shot, it fell far short of living up to its values. Shapiro described Rachel’s motivation to The New Yorker as, “I’m savvy enough and smart enough that I know I have to give the network all the frosting and the froufrou and all the titties that they need, and in the process I’m going to slip them this super-important thing.” I admire Shapiro for going for the super-important things, but hopefully she’ll actually pass it along to us next year.