Photo: Bettina Strauss (Lifetime)

The Peabody Awards came out this week, and no big surprise, 2016 winner UnREAL was not in the list of nominees. Two years ago, the Peabodies described the show as “a spot-on, behind-the-scenes send-up of ersatz ‘reality’ shows like The Bachelor, UnREAL makes viewers care about venal producers and petty contestants even as it skewers them.”

I think that’s what the show has lost since co-creator/executive producer Marti Noxon’s departure: It’s all skewer, no care. Even Serena seems bored by the four guys she has left, calling them all “good options,” which is as romantic as dirt. In past season, we did care about single mom Mary and her mental health issues, or hoping that Adam would pick Anna over the more scheming Grace. Even Darius and Ruby’s love story was a brief high spot in season two, because it made us feel something, that a show like Everlasting could finally stumble into a real romance, as unlikely as that seemed. But this season, Serena has very little chemistry with any of the four remaining contestants that she’s supposed to be so excited about. Good guy Owen is dull, Jasper is kind of a dick, Alexi’s a junkie. So Serena has to do a 180 on the guy she knows slept with Quinn that she saw in the woods with a forest ranger (even though that was staged): Forgetting all that, and focusing on the fact that August is the only guy to check in on her after her breakdown, she sleeps with August.

Serena’s swerving feelings about August almost make sense if we squint hard enough. The show’s careening feelings about Quinn are something else entirely. Last week, with Quinn’s careless and reckless actions almost causing the death of a child, and her stubborn insistence to call the whole disaster an unqualified success anyway, she was about as villainous as we’ve ever seen her. When you’re able to horrify both Rachel and Chet, you know you’ve crossed a line.

This week, other then Rachel giving Quinn a few moments of deserved shit on the phone, it’s like last week didn’t even happen. Quinn instead is portrayed here as a hard-working woman who is creating her own palace instead of waiting to settle down into it with a partner. She is successful enough to be able to do that all on her own. And she’s momentarily compassionate with Chet, of all people, and with Serena, enough to try to rally her after her breakdown is in danger of scaring off all of America.

Notably, Constance Zimmer helmed this episode (in her directorial debut), which could help account for its tendency to portray this complex character in a more flattering light, a hard-working executive producer who just wants a day off. This particular 180 is breakneck enough to be nauseating. Is Quinn a hero or a villain? The show isn’t portraying her as a multifaceted anti-hero in the Walter White/Don Draper vein. Instead, it’s downright fractious. Either Quinn has a heart or she doesn’t. Last week, only a heartless person could shrug off the almost-death of a child like that, then get so outraged when someone dared to call her out on it that she would refuse to help their own custody case. This week she’s portrayed as someone else entirely. It doesn’t make us have a bad opinion of Quinn (well, it does a little) as much as it does a bad opinion of the show’s writers’ room.

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That said, Serena’s dark side does seem to erupt out of nowhere, but it’s also a welcome insight. Until now, her only flaw seems to have been that she’s too straightlaced; the fact that she got a bit obsessive with her ex-boyfriend George add some missing complexity to her character (and Caitlin FitzGerald completely nailed that breakdown scene). I appreciate the drama turn, but am kind of conflicted about it: On one hand, who hasn’t had a bad breakup? When I was in college, after a particular breakup, I probably called my ex’s answering message a dozen times and hung up. But if Serena was a guy, would we feel as benignly about this behavior? Showing up uninvited at work events, texting his friends? Wouldn’t that seem menacing instead of just a tad over the obsessive line? I wonder if there’s even more to Serena that will emerge just in time for the finale.

Speaking of different layers, Rachel sets out to break down Jasper to show that he’s as vulnerable as Serena. Again, Bart Edwards did an excellent job in that scene as Jasper’s polished veneer crumbled, but not sure what the point was. I guess, as Quinn points out to Serena, it’s that we’re all fucked up, even super-successful moguls or posh English heirs. We’re all damaged. Like Rachel, manically ditching her family and then immediately heading for the closest hookup. Or as Quinn almost but not quite explains to Chet why she has to be such a heartless badass most of the time.

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Maybe some of us are just able to hide it better than others. Still, these are illuminations that might have better served the show a few episodes ago, not as we are almost (finally) cresting toward the season’s end.

Stray observations

  • Very little Jeremy this week, right? Well, that’s something.
  • Confused: If Quinn tells Madison the Serena meltdown footage isn’t usable, then why does her elimination scene refer to it, and they’re obviously going to use that interview with Jasper? I kinda love when Serena is just not up for UnREAL’s bullshit and is like, “Forget the shoot, I’m going to bed.”
  • Serena’s ex George is played by Colin Egglesfield, of course it is. Check out Caroline Siede’s great When Romance Met Comedy column in which she calls him a “soap-opera star and sentient piece of cardboard,” and says one of the many reasons Something Borrowed doesn’t work is that it’s about two best friends fighting over him.
  • Chet and Quinn and then Rachel all have pointed silent scenes in cars. Yes, they’re in transition, we get it, show.
  • The creepy psychiatrist spying on Rachel in her truck draws the line at sleeping with her. Complicated menu of morals, there.
  • Also, how could Jay think that he and Alexi had any sort of a real relationship? And besides him being super-hot, what’s the romantic attraction really? He’s a total mess.
  • Why is there a crate full of tennis balls in Rachel’s truck? And where is she showering?
  • Chet, would Quinn really use her own name as a password? And why would her being in the office mean that she would just give Chet her password? Of course, then she just goes ahead and does so. Shocker: An UnREAL plot point that makes little sense.
  • “Until you deal with the past, you’re stuck.” So true! So this is your weekly reminder that Jeremy is still a double-murderer. He is not savvy enough to have messed up that car very carefully, so wouldn’t Yale and Coleman’s relatives be somewhat curious? Or Mary’s? Or someone’s?
  • Next week: Double-episode finale! Let’s see how this all plays out. Also I don’t have a screener for the second half, so review will be up much later then usual. See you then.

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