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'UnREAL' Returns With Three Little Words And No Apologies

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in Lifetime's <em>UnREAL</em>.
James Dittiger
/
Lifetime
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in Lifetime's UnREAL.

Oh, how I'd like to tell you the first thing you will see in Season 2 of Lifetime's clever, cutting drama series UnREAL.

Tracking the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at a fictional The Bachelor-ish reality show called Everlasting, the first season was about its principals sinking deeper into the muck of betrayals and counter-betrayals. And at its end, it left producer Rachel and her boss Quinn with only their viscerally felt, mercilessly managed friendship. This season, we open on them together, riding high, swearing to a three-word code that starts with "money" and ends with "power" and has a word in the middle that I'm not allowed to write here. In this context, it doesn't quite mean "sex" and doesn't quite mean "men" and it doesn't quite mean "unapologetically getting what you want without getting your feelings involved," but it means all those things at once.

This is what UnREAL is: uncomfortable, unexpected, confidently noncompliant television.

This season, the twist on Everlasting is that the bachelor – sorry, suitor – is black. It's a first on Everlasting, as it would be a first on The Bachelor, were it to ever happen on The Bachelor. There's no sign of it yet, although UnREAL is smart enough to know that if it did happen, given the way television tends to treat people, there's a good chance it would be a professional athlete rather than, say, a lawyer. And the season is premiere is centrally, not incidentally, about how this fictional show treats race. As was the case last year, the willingness on the part of those who write the show to make Rachel and especially Quinn monsters extends to their deeply cynical attitudes about manipulating audience racism and racial controversies for ratings – like when they plot to create a fight between a black student activist in an I CAN'T BREATHE shirt and a girl who attained Instagram fame in a Confederate flag bikini. That's on top of Rachel's clearly genuine desire to congratulate herself for "making history" by pushing for a black suitor. To say she gets satisfaction from thinking this makes her a good person is an understatement. It's more accurate to say she gets great and loud satisfaction from it before the first break.

Although this is a show in large part about women and friendship, Rachel is not a typical female protagonist for a TV drama, hard on the outside and soft on the inside. What she is, in fact, is nasty on the outside and probably on the inside too, not to mention struggling to sustain her mental health. Her unreliability as an interpreter of her own story and circumstances is pronounced. Consider the way Rachel will say something that's kind of true, like the fact that some researchers believe reality shows about teen mothers have contributed to a drop in the teen pregnancy rate, and then immediately say something ridiculous, like that The Real World "started a gay rights movement." Every time you might be tempted to think of her as just a smart truth-teller, the way heroic TV women often are, she's instantly undermined. That's even more true of Quinn, whose unfiltered mouth is satisfying when she points it in the right direction and backward and offensive when she doesn't. It's an exercise in restraint and consistency by the UnREAL writing staff that these women are mesmerizing precisely because they are fundamentally indecent, but they are frequently right about lots of things it's satisfying to hear them say, particularly about the way men in their industry treat them.

The gender politics Rachel and Quinn navigate every day are cranked up this season, alongside the questions about race. Quinn's ex-boss and ex-lover Chet (Craig Bierko), who seemed to be out of the way when we last saw him, returns as a slimmed-down follower of a guru who tells men to retake control of their kingdoms. "Women are made to nurture and be adored," Chet announces. "Guys gotta do things." Cameraman Jeremy, who slept with and feuded with Rachel last season, is now her sworn enemy, and that's not convenient either. As it turns out, it's one thing to gain power and another to survive the blowback from those who resent the fact that you took it and are willing to use whatever they have left to destroy you. Hell hath no fury like a man who's been only part-vanquished.

The performers in the first two episodes of the second season live up to their stellar work in the first. Shiri Appleby has always been able to deliver on Rachel's ambivalence about her job, but here, we're seeing that ambivalence being driven out of her as she drifts closer to becoming an almost pure cynic, the way Quinn is. As for Constance Zimmer, she delivers insults like they're coming out of a nail gun, and her sanguine observations about people are differently but still effortlessly devastating. She doesn't believe in anything she's doing, but she believes in doing it better and more successfully than anyone else. She wants success – money, [something], power – as purely and unapologetically as anyone on television. Walter White or Tony Soprano might beat her in a head-to-head competition if they brought machine guns, but they wouldn't beat her on any measure of desire, and she has no mercy or goodness to which they could appeal.

But the best thing about UnREAL is its setting: in TV production, not in the exotic, glamorous worlds of criminal masterminds and mob guys where so many antiheroes live. Sure, Hollywood has its own glamour, but this isn't really a story that's about the super-rich Hollywood people you think of when you think of show business. It's set among the people who actually do the work. (Rachel lived in one of the show's trucks last season, and is still teased about the fact that she doesn't shower enough.) And while there was a death in the first season – which was actually one of the show's less compelling stories – the awful consequences of Rachel and Quinn's behavior aren't usually physical violence – just the emotional devastation of the unwary. And that's easier to relate to, even in a show at such a pitched level of drama. The real treachery many of us bump into, after all, isn't like Walter White battling superhuman drug dealers. The real treachery is in the careless or self-serving infliction of damage that someone spends years in therapy trying to undo.

To see UnREAL as finger-wagging at reality television isn't exactly wrong, but it's a superficial reading of its thesis, which is more dangerous and ambitious than that. It's a story about what happens to people who either lack any ethical true north or stop paying attention to where it points. Those people do not exist only in reality television; this is just a particularly colorful setting in which to place them. They exist in other parts of Hollywood, in business, in politics. This is what all so-called antihero shows are fundamentally about. The darkness of Rachel and Quinn's world has nothing really to do with cattiness or bitchiness or any of the other stereotypical girl-fight clichés. Neither of them really seems to crave romantic love or partnership, either openly or secretly, all that much. Again, for women on television, that's extraordinarily rare. They don't need love; in fact, it's hard to imagine wanting to inflict either of them on anyone at this point. They just want — money, [something], power.

So: racial politics, gender politics, a barbed look at entertainment, a central and complex friendship between women, a vicious drawing of the business world, a wild tale of shifting allegiances ... all that plus a satisfyingly biting caricature of one of television's most mockable franchises? All in all, it's pretty satisfying.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.