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There is absolutely nothing else on TV like UnREAL. There’s practically nothing on TV right now anyway, giving you virtually no reason not to be watching Lifetime’s game-changing, Peabody Award-winning series as it kicks off its season two.

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UnREAL’s first season took most by surprise: The cable channel that brought you Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (and is about to bring you another one) somehow offered one of the most innovative new dramas on TV. It helped that series vet Marti Noxon (Buffy, Mad Men, she’s on kind of a streak right now with Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce over on Bravo as well) is behind the scenes, undoubtedly pulling strings as well as uber-producer Quinn herself.

Which leads us to the conundrum faced by both UnREAL and the fictional show it features, Everlasting: How can they top the exemplary craziness of last season? Everlasting featured its second finale meltdown in a row, so it has a lot to live up to (Quinn despairs about a network bigwig, “What does he want us to do, kill someone every episode?” Rachel’s answer: “Hmh.”). As does UnREAL, which blew the doors off summer programming by melding fantasy and reality, soap and drama, truth and fiction. By pulling the curtain on Everlasting, it was pulling the curtain on itself. Especially led by Constance Zimmer as Quinn and Shiri Appelby as Rachel, both actors woefully underrated before this show. They have now crafted the most fascinating relationship on TV, two near-unredeemable yet still compelling characters tied together by a love of power and competition that will either bind them forever or destroy them completely. Possibly both.

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It certainly seems that way at the show’s beginning, when Rachel and Quinn start the season by wearing similar black dresses, and getting matching tattoos, a permanent reminder of what they’re focused on: “Money. Dick. Power.” Quinn has kicked out Chet, her ex-lover and ex-boss, moving into his position so that Rachel can move into hers as showrunner. The duo’s power move for the new Everlasting is to have the very first black suitor, a football star named Darius with a tarnished reputation (B.J. Britt), which will “make history,” as Rachel yells as she’s getting banged by Romeo, Darius’ manager.

To entice a network executive into approving this move, the two promise all kinds of controversial Everlasting contestants: a hot racist, a hotter blacktivist, and a terrorist. To some extent, they nab all of these, including Beth Ann, a Mississipppi native who has a bikini made out of the Confederate flag, and Ruby, the activist who somehow gets talked into thinking that she will be able to use the show to sell her message on national television. As Joshua Alston and others have pointed out, if UnREAL has a weak spot (note that I said “if”), it’s that Quinn and Rachel are so well developed, lesser characters like the contestants wilt in comparison. (Although calling one of them “Hot Rachel” is hilarious.)

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At least that tattoo makes it clear what Quinn and Rachel are focused on, which may just be a survival instinct as they try to claw their way to the top in a male-dominated field (note that all the network execs they deal with are white men). But speaking of survival instincts, this premiere episode immediately crafts Chet (a much-thinner Craig Bierko) as the male adversary, creating the “War” of the episode title. Chet, emasculated after losing his show to Quinn, goes on a hilarious “paleolithic lifestyle” retreat and comes back a warrior, ready to fight to get his empire back. With these raised stakes, Quinn has to get back in the game, knocking Rachel back down. So the pair may not just be fighting Chet, but each other.

What makes it even more interesting is that we’ve seen Quinn and Rachel do perfectly horrible, heinous things by this point. Quinn, and now Rachel, get excited about most things that would make other people sad, like news of a parent or fiancé dying, because they know that tragedy makes for compelling TV. The way that Rachel can command people is simultaneously seductive and terrifying (that Madison puppet scene was brutal). At certain moments this episode, as unlikely as it seems, Rachel actually morphs into Quinn, barking orders without a moment’s remorse or an iota of compassion. What makes it even more chilling is that we’ve seen Rachel’s vulnerability before; we also see how deftly she plays the suitor, talking Darius through his PR crisis and explaining how she can save him through the show. Her ability to manipulate people is awe-inspiring, all the more so because we’re watching her getting played herself.

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When Chet makes his power move, instead of working together to take him down, it just might tear Rachel and Quinn apart. Rachel is supposed to be trusting Quinn (who does function as her surrogate mother, pulling her away from trays of cocaine in Vegas, for example), but when it comes to defeating Chet or helping Rachel, it’s clear which side Quinn will go for. But watching this all play out will make UnREAL this summer’s absolute must-watch.

Stray observations

  • Rachel, I love you, but The Real World did not start the gay rights movement. Maybe the point is that she’s just so good at spouting persuasive claptrap.
  • You just can’t get dialogue like this anywhere else: “The more white pussy, the better. Am I right, Gary?” “Sorry, what?”
  • Or: “Suck it up, Goldberg. If we fired everyone we slept with, we wouldn’t have a crew.”
  • Madison bugs right now, but it would be cool to see her slow transition into the new Rachel. And Genevieve Buechner nailed that puppet scene.
  • Shari Appleby’s most impressive moment this episode was the expression on Rachel’s face after firing the guy on Jeremy’s crew: Stunned, then hearing the word “bitch” behind her, then slowly smiling as she realizes the power she has. It was everything.
  • Welcome to weekly coverage of UnREAL season two. Although Joshua Alston expertly covered the first season, he wrote up a preview for this one and then handed the weekly reins over to me for this one. Looking forward to it! I frickin’ love this show.

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