Shiri Appleby, Aline Elasmar

Monday was a significant day for UnREAL. First, Lifetime renewed the show for a second 10-episode season, citing the enthusiastic critical response and healthy DVR viewership as the reasons for granting the renewal despite the show’s dismal live numbers. Then, UnREAL premiered its sixth episode, “Fly,” the first episode to make me question whether the prospect of a second season is something I’m even interested in.

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Since the show began, its dark-and-darker tones were of concern, not because a show with this premise should necessarily be cheerier, but because the writers seemed to be striving to out-OMG the previous episode’s jaw-dropping moment. Rapid, breathless escalation is the way television storytelling is done now, so UnREAL isn’t egregious in this regard. But this show is about the artifice of romantic reality television, and it presents itself as an emotionally authentic scripted alternative to a show like The Bachelor. There’s only so far UnREAL can ratchet up the crazy before it stars to lose its utility. In moments like the unrestrained cat fight at the end of “Mother,” or Adam’s grunt-heavy investor pitch in “Wife,” the show has tiptoed right up to the line where good soapy becomes bad soapy, and “Fly” steps over it. And it’s not a small step; it’s the kind of step that ends games of Mother May I.

“Fly” is an unpleasant experience, especially for those who watched it live, because the network kept running promos urging viewers to stick around for the Last! Thirty! Seconds!, and the episode’s terrible outcome is pretty obvious by the halfway point. Mary, Everlasting’s resident MILF, dies by suicide after leaping from the roof of the enchanted mansion. When Shia crept into Mary’s room to tamper with her medications in “Truth,” it was obvious there would be tragic consequences. But they certainly came faster than expected, and despite how distasteful it is, Mary’s death spins the last four episodes of the season in an tantalizing, unpredictable direction. The aftermath of Mary’s death is actually a daring story to tell because of how it echoes the real-life tragedies to stem from ethically fraught reality television stunts.

How “Fly” got to that moment is another matter, and the execution flaws are enough to give me pause about UnREAL. Very few of the actions the characters take resembles recognizable human behavior. Yes, the previous episodes have depicted the producers of Everlasting as skilled manipulators who have no compunction about actively hurting the contestants if it will result in the best television. But I can’t be made to believe anyone would lay this much track only to be surprised where the train ends up. Quinn, who has made a $50 bet with Chet over whether Mary will last another week, encourages Rachel to track down Mary’s physically abusive ex-husband Kirk and invite him onto the show. Quinn figures that if there’s a confrontation between them, Adam will step in to protect her and will be more likely to keep Mary around after getting to play savior. The idea is consistent with the rest of Quinn’s despicable schemes this season, but Rachel’s reaction to it feels somewhat foreign.

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Rachel has done plenty of awful things to deliver what Quinn wants, but she’s also consistently demonstrated a self-awareness about her actions and a desire to make better choices whenever possible. Immediately following the events of “Truth” and Rachel’s efforts to help Faith conceal her sexuality, Rachel takes Quinn’s idea and runs with it, reasoning that it could be empowering for Mary to confront her abuser and maybe Mary needs to face Kirk to get closure. All this in spite of the fact that Mary will have no idea Kirk is showing up to the house where she’s dating another man on national television.

I don’t buy it. To borrow from Meat Loaf, Rachel would do anything for televised love, but she wouldn’t do that. It’s an idea so bad that even Shia, as hypocritical as she’s being, actually sounds like the voice of reason. The same Shia whose wild-and-crazy pool party culminated in what was arguably a sexual assault on Maya. The same Shia whose reckless, moronic tactics have positioned her as Rachel’s foil. If she says something is a terrible idea, a few moments of reflection are called for. And yet, Rachel goes all in. She sets up the awkward reunion, and watches passively while the scene devolves into chaos. She only jolts to life when Kirk lunges for her, and Jeremy jumped in to help subdue Kirk because there’s apparently no security staff anywhere on the premises.

Even Quinn and Chet are far grosser than normal. After Quinn is informed that Mary is on the roof, her biggest concern is that there’s no camera nearby to capture her suicide attempt. Chet is similarly composed under the circumstances, and neither he nor anyone else thinks to get the staff psychiatrist involved in a mental health crisis. Every action the characters take is in service of Mary’s death, regardless of how little sense it makes or how it fits with the audience’s understanding of the characters. And there’s no real justification for it. If, for example, Rachel had been wooed with an exceptionally handsome bounty, or if Quinn and Chet’s meeting with the network executives went poorly enough to throw the future of Everlasting into question, their desperate maneuvers would ring true. There aren’t the extreme circumstances to go with the extreme behavior, and “Fly” feels terribly contrived as a result.

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It makes perfect sense that the writers would build “Fly” in exactly the way they did. Kirk’s appearance catalyzes Mary’s death while giving Adam and Jeremy some heroic moments, and injecting strife into Jeremy and Lizzie’s wobbly relationship. And while the writers could have just as easily built to Mary’s death using only the medication tampering and alcohol interactions, that would only implicate Shia in Mary’s death. The suicide has to implicate the major characters like Rachel, but especially Chet and Quinn, with Quinn now the proud owner of two-fifths of Everlasting. Maybe the aftermath of Mary’s death will be executed in a way that acquits the path leading up to it, but right now, the whole thing feels grossly manipulative and slightly inappropriate. It’s also too driven by clockwork. Watching UnREAL, I get the distinct sense, based on how the story beats fit together, that the writers had a beginning and end in mind and planned the story beats from back to front.

The main story is clumsy enough to detract from the rest of “Fly,” which is a shame because the episode has some nice moments around its edges. Chet and Quinn’s pitch to the network executives was a surprisingly pleasant moment with the two of them working as a team. It’s also interesting that while Everlasting is having its Family Day, to Quinn’s chagrin, she and Chet are acting more like parents than ever before. The show is their baby, and as is often the case in unhappy relationships, the few moments of joy are usually related to the kids. “Fly” also features some cute flirting scenes between Adam and Rachel, the most appealing romantic pair on the show. I still can’t get on the same page with Jeremy and I forget what Lizzie even looks like until she appears on screen. I wonder how the writers plan to deal with the issue that the suitor who has the most chemistry with Rachel is the one least possible to continue with the show in season two. Alas, there are bigger issues to deal with.

Stray observations:

  • Prior to Mary’s death, it’s mentioned that there are six girls left in the competition, so who are the other five? Faith, Shamiqua, Anna, and…Grace? Maya? Help me out here.
  • Lilly Belle to Adam: “You’re weird.” Mouths of babes!
  • I really love the idea of a scripted show playing with the emotions these kinds of shows stir up. I really liked the scene between Adam and Anna after the bunny stunt where she goes into an insecurity spiral because they haven’t spent much time together. It’s exactly the kind of conversation that takes place on The Bachelor all the time.
  • Sounds like Quinn and Chet have lined up a big-name actor for the next season.

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