In the pilot of Lifetime’s acidic drama UnREAL, Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a cunning producer on a Bachelor-like reality dating competition, struts around set in a T-shirt that reads “This is what a feminist looks like.” The shirt makes for a bold joke when worn by a woman who spends her all-consuming work days goading other women into becoming their worst selves on national television. It’s also the perfect symbol for UnREAL’s deeper themes, which have more to do with the politics of identity than the subterfuge underlying the most successful reality franchises. Does Rachel have the right to call herself a feminist? Certainly, if feminism means beating boorish, sharp-elbowed men at their own game.
Season two finds Rachel more debauched than ever, and still under the thumb of her surrogate mother Quinn (a chilling Constance Zimmer), who has just secured a lucrative overall production deal and is transitioning to a more hands-off role on their show, Everlasting. Quinn and Rachel’s relationship is one of the most fascinating character dynamics anywhere on television. As Everlasting’s most cunning producer, Rachel knows exactly what buttons to push to make the show’s hopeful bachelorettes cry, claw, and canoodle on cue. But even as her entire professional life is built on psychological manipulation, she’s as susceptible to it as the contestants she nudges like chess pieces. Quinn works Rachel like a marionette, needling her into doing whatever it takes to get the footage they need, and Rachel is all too eager to fall in line if it means she can eventually supersede Quinn.
“Eventually” is the key word in that sentence, because even if Quinn wanted to turn over Everlasting’s reins to her eager protégée—which she doesn’t—she feels like she can’t with her lover-turned-nemesis hanging around. Everlasting’s creator credit still belongs to Chet (Craig Bierko), who bears a striking resemblance to Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss and clashed with Quinn when they ran the show together in season one. Quinn outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted him, but he’s not ready to retire quietly. Instead, he goes to obnoxious lengths to undermine his ex in a plot thread that is slightly contrived, but intensifies the push-and-pull between Quinn and Rachel in a satisfying way.
If that were UnREAL’s only contrivance, the show would live up to the intelligence and intensity of its toxic central relationship. But as engrossing as the Quinn and Rachel relationship is, and as stellar as Zimmer and Appleby’s performances are, UnREAL still hasn’t figured out how to rise to their level as a whole. Nearly every other character in the show feels barely present. Jeremy (Josh Kelly) is introduced in season one as Rachel’s potential soulmate, but when he first appears in season two as a vengeful ex, it’s almost a surprise, like an abrupt reminder of the character’s very existence. The same can be said for Everlasting staffer Jay, who never quite becomes a whole person despite the best efforts of the charming Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. It’s not that the regular supporting players are underdeveloped, but that Rachel and Quinn are overdeveloped, and played with such gusto that everything else becomes background.
As with season one, the guest stars who populate Everlasting’s harem aren’t given much to work with. Because UnREAL is about how people are manipulated into becoming their false television selves, the women of Everlasting are left hollow so Rachel and Quinn can assign them their motivations. Denée Benton joins the cast as Ruby, a Black Lives Matter activist who is convinced that an appearance on Everlasting will grant her the opportunity to get her message out to a larger audience. Ruby’s involvement in the show feels artificial from the outset, along with most of the nuts-and-bolts of producing the show. For Quinn and Rachel to keep Ruby around to drive conflict with the other contestants makes sense. For UnREAL co-creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro to keep Ruby around to drive conflict with the other characters feels as openly manipulative as Rachel’s expert gaslighting.
That said, UnREAL is energized by the introduction of pro football star Darius Beck (B.J. Britt), Everlasting’s latest suitor, and the franchise’s first black leading man. The Bachelor has yet to cast any non-white beaux, save for season 18’s Juan Pablo Galavis, so UnREAL gets to ride into undiscovered country as it debates the opportunities and challenges of creating a romantic fantasy about interracial dating. “I promise you 20 million viewers the minute he lays his black hands on a white ass,” says Quinn to an apprehensive network executive. Casting Britt is a smart choice by Noxon and Shapiro, one that allows them to examine how it will be more challenging for Darius to use Everlasting to rehabilitate his image than it has been for his white predecessors.
Despite the exciting reboot, UnREAL still falls short of the expectations set by Rachel and Quinn, because their relationship is more crystallized than anything else on the show. Everlasting’s production process remains as frustratingly opaque as its contestants, and it isn’t always enough that the vagueness gives Rachel and Quinn a wide-open playing field for their mind games. UnREAL has finally lent Lifetime the gravitas it has been seeking for years, but even at its best, it can resemble the overhandled melodramas that created the network’s subprime reputation.