UnReal season 2 is experiencing a Rachel in paradise style meltdown. Unfortunately, there is no ratings boost at the end for this Lifetime show.
The fun of UnReal season 1 grew out of the ruthless, conniving people working in the editing bay. The series was strongest when Rachel was behind locked doors with Adam or when Quinn was at the helm trying to steady the course of the S.S. Everlasting. It was there, in the commanding performances of two incredible female leads Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, that UnReal extracted its critical acclaim.
So why, in season 2, would you not pass the baton off to Quinn and have Rachel’s story anchor the show? Why are there suddenly so many male leads running through the strong fabric of the show ripping it apart like they are entering the football field at a homecoming game? Quinn and Rachel have the strongest stories to tell. They are the duo that won over fans in season 1 and they are two characters with the most to gain and lose from their narratives in season 2. And yet we are guided away from them by scenes starring Coleman, Chet, Jeremy, Gary, Darius and his cousin Romeo, for heaven’s sake, even Adam. Season 2 is suffering from too many stories fighting for attention, most of which have a man at the center trying to dictate the trajectory of the show.
I wrote off Gary, Coleman, and Chet in the first few episodes as pillars of male chauvinism that Rachel and Quinn would have to face week in and week out. More and more challenges would lead to more and more opportunities for the pair to maneuver around and produce great television content. I anticipated pushback from the network, from the men on set, from the suitor, and hell even from the male craft services members. Why? Because it would result in an interesting narrative — two women take each hurdle in stride show, once again and prove yet again that women can do anything the men can, but backwards and in heels with a killer fitting black dress to boot.
Instead, the reality of the industry creeps into the show basically saying that no matter what women bring to the table, a better more capable man is always on the sidelines ready to come in and take over once the day is saved. Depressing? Sure. Reality bites. Somewhere in the mess of it all we lost Quinn and Rachel. Instead of harnessing the combined power of their “Money, Dick, Power” tattoos they are retreating into the bubbles they created for themselves under the glass ceiling. And worst of all, they seem resigned to accept this fate. It would be one thing if the story ended here. We’d have commentary on the daily grind of what it is like to be a woman working in entertainment industry and season 3 would be set to drive the series in another direction.
That is not the case. Rachel and Quinn’s stories sound interesting in outline form, but that is exactly what they are in season 2, outlines. The biggest issue UnReal faces– not a single moment on the show feels earned. No quip from Quinn elicits the same shock factor as season 1. Adam’s return did nothing for Rachel except show that he got his life together without her. Coleman trying to get Rachel to focus on a healthy relationship for once in her life did not make a single heart flutter. Even Yael confirming she is a reporter barely raised any eyebrows, even though it is perhaps the best laid storyline in the season. Why? Because she has to force Jeremy back into the narrative in order to make her story work. There are too many people trying to grab attention and not a single character is reaping the benefit of a satisfying story.
There is no stronger example of this than in “Aftermath.” There were two strong moments in the episode that should have served as the payoff of seven episodes worth of set up triggering a three episode fall out to take us into season 3. First Darius’ attempt to break out of Everlasting was forced into a police narrative that, as the show even bluntly points out, they had no business telling. Darius could have gotten himself back into trouble with his image plenty of times over.
Are we to believe that (working within the hazy idea of the turnaround timeline under which Everlasting operates) dismissing both Ruby and Beth Ann earned him so much love from America in terms of +3 ratings that this is the only tactic they had left in the arsenal to turn to? In the episode we never returned to the fallout of Romeo being shot or Darius’ reaction to the ordeal. Why? Because the shooting was made to be about Rachel. Imagine if Ruby stuck around long enough for this to unfold.
The second instance combines two incredible scenes from “Aftermath” that highlights why sacrificing focus on Quinn and Rachel in favor of two weeks watching of Chet try to take over the show was a huge mistake. Adam points out the fabrication of the world Rachel has deluded herself into believing is making a difference. She is caught up in declarative statements that hold no more meaning than the craft services table announcing they have eggs for breakfast. Rachel even goes as far as to say “my Africa” as if the world she plans to conquer and save exists solely for her and no one else. I forgave Adam’s forced return in this (and the moment he sits outside her trailer) because it elicited some new truth about Rachel. Someone finally started to color her in.
The scene immediately following where Rachel tells Quinn, “You need to get over me,” left me feeling cheated out of a narrative. The two are sitting in one of the most overdone areas of the set that is reserved for eliciting intimacy between the suitor and the contestant. Watching this scene out of the existing context of the season, I would put money on it being the most satisfying exchange between Rachel and Quinn of the entire season. But much like Everlasting’s manufactured reality, it came off as an attempt to pull some sort of emotion from nothing at all. At the end we are left with Quinn back in her comfort zone at the helm of Everlasting and Rachel comatose in a mental ward waiting for Coleman to come save her.
It all boils down to UnReal trying to make too many stories play out at once. The pacing of the show is beat for beat with season 1, down to the episodes lining up for the home visit. However, if the story dictates that we are to be less invested in the suitor and take a step into the producer’s’ shoes viewing the contestants only as the caricatures they are assigned, then the other stories need to rise up to fill the void. If we’re meant to feel like Rachel and Quinn with nothing giving us the satisfaction we believe a show will give us, then kudos to the writers for roping us into their long game. I’m not entirely convinced that is true. There are only three episodes left in season 2 and I am curious to see if any characters can rise from the ashes of “Ambush.”