Note: Contains spoilers for UnReal season 2
At an early point in UnReal‘s season 2 finale, Quinn tells her young producer, “We have an obligation to our viewers, we have to escalate the tension, up the stakes, complicate the story.” That statement, though obviously supposed to be taken as meta by the audience, pretty much sums up the experience of watching this whole season.
At its core, UnReal is a series about itself. It seeks to comment on television and the nature of those who work behind the scenes, and season two has been no different.
For those unfamiliar, UnReal takes place on the set of fake reality show, “Everlasting,” as we follow showrunner Quinn and troubled producer and protégé, Rachel. At the beginning of the first season, Rachel is returning to the crew after a very public breakdown, navigating the toxic environment of the industry as she continues to struggle with her own mental health problems.
UnReal has been an interesting experience this year to the say the least. Coming off the second most critically acclaimed debut series of last summer (after Mr. Robot), it’s a show that had a lot to prove.
The aforementioned USA series did too, but sadly UnReal‘s home on Lifetime – known primarily for its movies of the week and, funnily enough, reality television – and primarily female audience were always going to make it more of a target. So season two didn’t have to be great, it had to be fantastic. It had to do new and disruptive things without losing that effortless charm and intelligence it had from the start.
Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is herself a former producer on The Bachelor, so she knows her subject matter pretty well. As a result, UnReal is a show that revels in its genre in such an uninhibited manner that it can only be admired. It’s tawdry, and over-the-top, and often deeply uncomfortable viewing. It’s also one of the only shows that dares to deal with the topics it does.
UnReal continues to be a great television show about television, it’s just that season two has made its greatness look more accidental than intentional.
Following its surprise success, the first thing the show decided to do this year was to introduce the character of Darius – a black man – as its suitor. Feeding off the refusal of real-world reality dating shows to introduce a non-white suitor, UnReal made headlines earlier in the year when B.J. Britt was cast.
When it was reported that UnReal would beat other shows to the post when it came to diversity, the media cheered. It was reported as a great stride forward for the show, an example of where things should be going. This was undoubtedly what the network and showrunners wanted (who doesn’t want good press?), but it also put UnReal in the same line of fire as its show-within-a-show.
This has all led to one of the most racially-charged seasons of television ever aired. Early episodes never shied away from conversations about race, picking up one of the most uncomfortable elements of the show’s first season and expanding on it to sometimes glorious effect.
There have since been various reports that the series’ execs intended the season, and many of its more controversial elements, as a critique of the media’s hypocrisy of white Hollywood and its quest for diversity on-screen. Quinn and Rachel, our “heroes” represent that problem.
Whereas season one was hailed as brilliant in its exploration of complicated feminism and gender politics, season two has attempted to talk about something not just outside of its wheelhouse but also, intentionally or not, outside of the characters’ understanding.
One episode, at a point in the season when more and more people were becoming aware of the widening cracks in UnReal‘s story, featured Darius and his cousin Romeo apprehended by police and the latter being shot. The episode, and its decision to focus on Rachel in the aftermath, has been widely criticised and branded the last straw for a show that’s been steadily losing its way.
The shooting is caused by Rachel who, in a rare crisis of conscience, runs out into the road to stop the officers (who she called) from going too far. Jay, the production crew’s sole black man, then yells at a fragile Rachel and tells her that it isn’t her story to tell. This, by the end of the episode, causes her to have another breakdown. Romeo isn’t seen again until the finale, with no evidence of his injury and barely a mention of previous events.
As far as Rachel has continuously congratulated herself for bringing in Darius, it’s hard to get away from the fact that UnReal has been doing the same. It so badly wants the credit for bringing in the first black suitor, but what it’s chosen to do with that choice has been car crash television as its most fascinating.
For starters, to air a storyline in which police shoot an unarmed black man at this time in 2016 is a loaded move.
The treatment of Darius and Romeo weren’t the only problems, either, with the continued presence of Chet and Jeremy – exes to Quinn and Rachel, respectively – confusing things beyond reason. Despite both being painted as heinous villains throughout, Chet is the one who intervenes when Jeremy assaults Rachel, and then Jeremy is the one who ultimately saves the day when Coleman and Yael threaten to expose them.
Skating right past the ridiculousness of someone shown to be a stable grown-up not one season ago straight-up murdering two people to save the woman he beat up three weeks ago, both men are also present in the final shot of the season, a call-back to a similar scene in the season one finale.
Now, instead of Quinn and Rachel sharing a moment alone, Chet and Jeremy are placed in-between the two women. Accomplices – the audience is asked to care about them as we do the two central women.
And Rachel, in the end, gets her happy ending. Darius chooses Ruby, a black activist he genuinely loves but cut earlier in the season, and she and Quinn have escaped jail for the many crimes and misdeeds they’ve committed in the name of “Everlasting.”
But, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, this is not a series about Darius, in the same way it was never about Adam, last year’s suitor. It’s a show about how stories are formed and manipulated on television, and how that faux-realism can mess with your head. This season, in particular, has been about how the industry navigates the demands of a certain section of the audience for more diversity.
In that regard, it’s a truly fascinating time for these things to be explored. This season of television has been incredibly hard on queer fans and female fans, for example, and the voices of marginalized fans are getting louder across the board. That, coupled with the rise of Black Lives Matter amidst a continuous stream of tragedy played out on and by the media, means these are stories that need to be told.
By putting the focus on Rachel, a light is immediately shone on her privilege in the situation, and how dangerous and toxic the misuse of that privilege can be. It’s a complex story, with characters that all have names and backgrounds and established personalities. Darius and Romeo were not props at that point in the show, even if Rachel treats them as such in the moment.
This season made a decision early on to go big, to up the stakes, and to over-complicate the story. That is, after all, what people expect from a sophomore season.
But UnReal is still hands-down the most meta experience you’ll have watching a television show. It’s simultaneously heinous and earnest, criticising “trash’ TV whilst playing into its most obvious tropes, and celebrating in its achievements while painting those same strides forward as problematic on screen.
But we need things like UnReal right now – art that isn’t afraid to explore difficult things from different perspectives and to intentionally take an audience to uncomfortable places. All over Hollywood and beyond, men like Coleman are taking control of women’s narratives, straight people of the stories of queer people and, of course, white people are taking ownership of the experiences of people of color in the real world.
UnReal is one of the only series that shows us the dire consequences of this, and how producers are filtering stories through their own lens. The issue was not in the idea, but in the ambition and admittedly sloppy execution, and that’s why I’m still looking forward to what the show decides to tackle next season.