UnREAL is a far darker show than I was anticipating. It’s a frequently funny show, both conceptually and tonally, but it’s incredibly dark, uncomfortably so at times. Rachel’s backstory is what makes UnREAL so bleak. If there was the potential for Rachel’s rapidly deteriorating mental state to culminate in a freak-out, one in which she ruined the Everlasting finale by crashing the proposal scene to inform the world that the show is “Satan’s asshole,” there would be a sense of a light at the end of the tunnel. But that probably won’t happen because it already did. The upshot is that UnREAL has found its sea legs remarkably quickly, and that’s partly to do with the way its pilot feels more like a second-season premiere. “Return” feels like the continuation of a first season that ended with Rachel’s breakdown, a moment that would strongly suggest the end of Rachel’s career and leave the show with the shortage of narrative options that makes for an ideal cliffhanger.
I’ve never seen Sequin Raze, co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film that was developed into UnREAL, but I’d be willing to guess the ending is something close to Rachel’s breakdown in “Return.” If that’s the case, in developing the show, picking up from Rachel’s surprise return to the set makes perfect sense. But the logic of it doesn’t mitigate how it feels for the audience to see Rachel forced to operate in this environment despite having recently, and inconveniently, developed a conscience. UnREAL is an ambitious, auspicious freshman drama that feels totally fresh and unexpected, but it’s a great show that makes me feel drained. It’s one of the more conflicting shows I’ve watched in a very long time.
“Relapse” is tough to watch. When Rachel had to get Brittany to cough up some tears after her unexpected elimination, she had to stoop pretty low, engaging in emotional sadism that felt awful but also like the sort of thing someone in Rachel’s position has to do on a daily basis. Little did I know that was a cakewalk in comparison to some of the really horrendous things Rachel has to do, and “Relapse” has me wondering just how deep this cesspool goes. The episode focuses on Rachel’s mad dash to pay back rent to Bethany, a gothic former roommate who rented Rachel’s room out from under her during Rachel’s post-breakdown fugue state. There’s a ticking clock element: Bethany has Rachel’s MacBook, which contains a cache of sensitive, personal materials, much of which has to do with the Everlasting crew, or at least with Rachel’s relationship with Jeremy. Rachel can either cough up the rent she owes within 24 hours, or Bethany promises to expose Rachel’s secrets to everyone at the show. With the threat looming over her head, Sarah must draft a new villain character to fill the vacancy left by Brittany after Quinn promises a handsome bounty to the producer able to identify and groom the best candidate.
Quinn calls it a “bitch hunt,” and as it turns out, bitch is the most dangerous game, or at least the game most dangerous to Rachel’s quest to retain a shred of human decency. Rachel winds up with an assignment to woo Anna, a smart, charming lawyer, to the dark side, a mission that becomes complicated when Anna’s father is placed under intensive care following a cardiac event. Quinn makes the call to withhold the information from Anna, rationalizing it as letting Anna have a little time to unwind, away from the stresses of her job and her father’s recurring, but typically non-fatal health condition.
The transparent truth is that Quinn wants a villain at any cost, and doesn’t mind risking the possibility of preventing Anna from seeing her father for the last time. It’s an important plot in terms of reminding the audience of the parameters of the situation. Intellectually, most people who watch this brand of reality competition understand that participants are relieved of their means of contacting the outside world. But presenting it this way packs a wallop by reinforcing how vulnerable Everlasting’s cast is to producers who don’t have their best interests at heart, and who control nearly every aspect of their lives while production is taking place.
“Relapse” does a fine job of dramatizing the concept of “choice” as it concerns participation in a reality show. Often, reality show participants are pilloried for being willing to go to unbelievable lengths for some television exposure, and perhaps some of that criticism is deserved. But there are presumably complex, if not pure motivations for wanting to participate in a reality competition like Everlasting, and the choice to participate in the show is only thing someone like Anna can be held completely held responsible for. From the moment the production machine clicks into fifth gear, very little is within their control. Rachel and her co-workers are wizards. They dress like homeless people and scrape by on stolen showers and thimblefuls of anti-perspirant, but they “create the conditions” for things to happen, then watch them happen. Shia blocks access to food to provoke a rage, while Jay tells the black girls plainly they need to adopt an “angry black woman” affect if they plan on sticking around. The idea of choice is illusory at best.
Rachel is the best at this kind of manipulation, and she uses every trick at her disposal to reduce Anna to catfight cliché, but still can’t get Anna to give the cameras a full-blown slut-shaming in the middle of a formal dance. There’s a similar moment earlier in the episode where Shia tries to needle Pepper, the saccharine schoolteacher, into insulting her fellow contestants, and initially fails to close the deal. But Shia is eventually able to mold Pepper into the imbalanced girl, though Pepper’s not quite the bitch Quinn needs, while Jay’s bitch makeover on Athena produces a compelling secondary story but not a central villain. Rachel wins the competition, and not even just because she’s better than her professional rivals at encouraging contestants to become what the production needs, because she manages to cut Anna’s rage over being blocked from accessing her dying father into a story about how crazy, bitchy Anna suddenly freaked out on the other girls. If you can wind up being designated the bitch whether you intentionally provoke a fight with another participant or merely try to flee so you can see your father before he dies, there’s no such thing as choice.
- The cliffhanger felt a little off. Bethany seemed like she wanted the cash more than she wanted to embarrass Rachel, and it didn’t feel like Rachel deserved the knife twist.
- Chet’s wife is pregnant again, much to Quinn’s chagrin, and I’m still not terribly interested in that story.
- The “Previously on” segment was surprisingly long, the kind that supposes the audience is joining the second episode after skipping the first.
- Rachel, on Adam’s sudden shower strip-down: “I’ve seen enough suitor dong to last me an entire life.”
- Quinn, prepping the scene as Anna is trying to flee: “I need princess fantasy footage out the ass.”