Last summer, Lifetime’s scripted drama documenting the manipulations and diabolical machinations behind a reality television series ostensibly about finding love – an obvious riff on ABC’s The Bachelor franchise titled Everlasting – became a critical darling. UnReal took viewers behind-the-scenes on such a massive pop culture phenomenon, while also giving television some of its best female characters and social commentary.
UnReal started off strong right off the bat in its freshman season and continued to prove delightfully entertaining while following the sociopathic actions of both showrunner Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby). Meanwhile, Rachel struggled with the monster-like emotional manipulation needed to put on a season of Everlasting as she returned to the show following a breakdown during the finale of the previous season.
The season 2 premiere, ‘War’ – written by UnReal co-creators Martin Noxon & Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and directed by Peter O’Fallon – sees Quinn and Rachel in charge of Everlasting, with Quinn taking on the role of show creator previously held by Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko) and Rachel acting as the new showrunner. The episode follows Rachel and Quinn as they introduce the network to Everlasting’s newest leading man, the first black suitor in the show’s history: Darius Beck (B.J. Britt). Plus, Rachel pulls the puppet strings of her producers in order to pad the show’s cast with an explosive combination of women. But, when Chet returns, Quinn and Rachel’s hold on their show is threatened.
One aspect of UnReal’s premiere season that drew viewer and critic interest was the series’ deft handling of the sexism that was both a part of the Everlasting show and the goings on behind the scenes that brought the reality dating competition to life. However, as was often the case in season 1, Quinn and Rachel more often than not perpetuated the sexism of Everlasting while fighting against the sexism they faced in their own roles, and that theme has been extended to season 2.
Since ‘War’ finds Quinn and Rachel with the most power they’ve had since UnReal began – perfectly showcased in the opening scene in which the women are getting wrist tattoos that simply state: “Money. Dick. Power.” – the woman have a chance to make a difference on the series, they do little to elevate other women on the production staff or cast. Rather, they choose to use their roles of power to diversify Everlasting by enlisting the series’ first black suitor (a pro football player in the midst of his own public relations scandal after saying, “Bitch, please,” to a female reporter).
But, as with most things in the world of reality television depicted on UnReal, Quinn and Rachel’s motives to make history by casting Darius as their leading man has more to do with wanting ratings and the appearance of diversity rather than wanting to do the right thing by providing more diverse representation in the show’s cast. In fact, their historic move in casting Darius is undercut by a handful of dubious actions: Rachel convincing a Black Lives Matter activist to drop out of her final semester of college in order to be on Everlasting; the producers forcing the African-American debutante to room with a contestant who sports a confederate flag bikini; and Rachel attempting to manipulate a Pakistani contestant to wear a headscarf in order to communicate to the audience that the woman has connections to a terrorist.
As in the first season, the dichotomy between Quinn and Rachel’s supposedly honorable intentions and their obviously racist actions help to create a reality behind the surreality of Everlasting, while offering a cutting social commentary on how people – especially people in charge of creating mass media – walk a line between selfishness and selflessness, more often than not falling on the former side of that line.
Still, the characters of Quinn and Rachel are compelling in their un-likability. As with the famous male antiheroes of previous critically acclaimed series like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos, although viewers may not agree with Quinn and Rachel’s actions, or find them to be detestable, audiences are meant to root for the female duo and UnReal effectively manages to pull that off with flying colors. Even as viewers may agree with Everlasting’s director of photography Jeremy (Josh Kelly), producer Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), or on-set therapist Dr. Wagerstein (Amy Hill) that the showrunner may be going too far in her manipulation not only of the contestants but of producer Madison (Genevieve Buechner), UnReal also manages to make the viewer root for Rachel’s success.
Because, unlike her former coworkers who are now the people she manages, viewers see both sides to Rachel: the tough showrunner capable of firing the man who asked for the show’s “kill list” (the list of contestants getting kicked off early that the crew can sleep with) because “being a sexist manbaby on my set has consequences” and the woman still recovering from her breakdown who is unsure of her role on Everlasting. Though both Quinn and Rachel my perpetuate sexism on the set of Everlasting when it comes to make sure their show is a success, they embody the struggle most women face of picking their battles and sacrificing pieces of their humanity in an exchange for power.
Additionally, the dynamic between Quinn and Rachel is a similarly contained struggle for power between women – blithely compared by one of the Everlasting crew members to the relationship between a woman who was abused by her husband and chose to remain with him. Though ‘War’ begins with Quinn and Rachel happily existing in their respective roles, the return of Chet and his declaration of war causes Quinn to go into panic mode, taking over Everlasting from Rachel, and Rachel beginning to unravel with her confidence shaken by Quinn’s lack of faith. The loss of power to both women will likely affect their relationship over the course of season 2, as they’re both taken down a peg and somewhat returned to their roles from season 1.
All in all, the UnReal season 2 premiere is a return to form for the series, though ‘War’ manages to elevate both the drama and the social commentary on sexism and racism existing in Hollywood that Lifetime’s breakout summer show became known for last year. The episode sets the stage for a multitude of compelling story arcs for the crew of Everlasting as well as certain contestants on the show-within-a-show, all revolving around making a fairytale romance come true even as their real world contains none of that fairytale romance.
But, as was the case in season 1, UnReal capitalizes on the audience’s desire to take a peak behind the curtain of reality television – though, as seems to be the thesis statement of Lifetime’s drama, viewers may not exactly like what they see. Still, the humor and horror of everything going on behind the scenes of Everlasting, as well as the dynamics of the cast and crew, make for incredibly compelling television – which is exactly what UnReal season 2 aims and succeeds to be.
UnReal continues Monday June 13th with ‘Insurgent’ at 10pm on Lifetime. Check out a preview below: