As UnREAL progresses, it’s starting to focus more on character rather than plotting, and that’s a positive development for two reasons. The first is that UnREAL simply feels like a character study trapped inside a nighttime soap, which is partly a symptom of Shiri Appleby sucking up all the oxygen with her gutsy, stunning performance. Any scene with no Rachel in it needs more Rachel in it.
The second reason is that UnREAL has an authenticity problem. It wants to cut deep below the surface of the reality-romance world, but it can’t bear the sight of blood. UnREAL isn’t an exposé about the making of a Bachelor-type television show, though it certainly presented itself as such early on. The show merely uses the world of Everlasting as a backdrop for its action and as a clever metaphor for the mendacity that seeps into all interpersonal relationships. That’s only an issue insomuch as the button-pushing and emotional wrangling that goes on behind the scenes of Everlasting are given more weight than the people engaging in that behavior and their motivations—besides a steady paycheck—for doing so. “Wife” tilts that balance in the right direction with a tighter focus on shading in UnREAL’s characters and deepening the relationships and rivalries between them.
The relationship with the most added depth is the one between Rachel and Adam, which “Wife” takes from the faintest hint of a sexual spark between them to a full-blown workplace crush. Based on the comments I’ve read, the Rachel and Adam relationship is polarizing, and to be honest, I’m still trying to determine how I feel about the pairing myself. Freddie Stroma is definitely handsome and his performance is perfectly competent, but there’s not exactly explosive chemistry between Rachel and Adam. One television criticism that I hate making but usually make anyway is the degree to which two romantically paired characters were “written together” rather part of a relationship that feels like it developed organically. I hate making that point because it’s a scripted show, so of course things happen in the plot according to the writers’ choices, but this is one of those cases where it feels like the characters are square pegs being pummeled into round holes.
That said, I’m actually kind of confident the UnREAL writers are going someplace interesting with the Rachel and Adam relationship, even though right now it seems like they’re doing so against the characters’ wills. As I mentioned in my review of “Mother,” the show has been having it both ways with its depiction of how the Everlasting producers control their cast. Quinn and her team have full control of Everlasting, to the extent that when Rachel ruined the prior season’s finale, they were still able to cobble the footage together into the perfect fairy tale. But Adam goes off-script based on his whims, and when he does so, everyone on the production side panics and pivots in whatever direction he’s chosen.
Now that it’s clear the writers are guiding Rachel and Adam into a romantic entanglement, those choices make a lot more sense. With Adam, Rachel has finally met her match. Adam is as manipulative, ambitious, and opportunistic as Rachel, and because he’s not genuinely invested in Everlasting, he isn’t as easy to control as the rest of the cast. Adam’s only concern is rebuilding his career and personal brand after the tabloid embarrassment he suffered back home, and he only cooperates with the production when it suits him. Of course, this is why Rachel would be drawn to someone like Adam. She makes her living manipulating people into behaving in a very specific way, so it’s only natural Rachel would be drawn to a man with the strength of will to go his own way. Every time Adam ignores Everlasting’s concerns, Rachel becomes that much more attracted to him. She’s also determined to be great at her job, so their relationship is becoming a cat-and-mouse game in which it’s not always evident who’s the predator and who’s the prey.
In “Wife,” Adam throws Rachel one wild curveball after another. First, a tabloid breaks a story about how Adam is texting his estranged wife behind the backs of his “girlfriends” in the cast. She’s adamant he apologize to the cast, a gesture designed to placate the women, as well as the Everlasting audience. Naturally, he won’t do it, so Rachel does what she does best by baiting the women with a copy of the magazine, then renewing her apology campaign with Adam when the women threaten to revolt. Instead of offering a succinct, insincere apology, Adam feigns humility and tells the women he got scared and panicked, which is an evergreen explanation for people on shows like this. It’s a lie so artful and well-told, even Rachel is impressed.
Adam lights more fires for Rachel to put out. She’s trying to put together a group date at Adam’s dilapidate family vineyard, and she has to make the best of it due to a clause in Adam’s contract requiring that a publicity-generating Everlasting shoot take place there. Rachel tries to push back, but while she chides Adam for using his puppy-dog eyes on her, he still ends up getting his way. Everlasting pays for some heavy renovation work so Adam’s winery will look more like the setting of a romantic fantasy and less like the setting of an incident referred to as “The Napa Massacre of 1974.” Naturally, Rachel insists that he scratch her back too: She wants Adam to lay a passionate kiss on one of the women while the others on the group date watch. He holds up his end of the bargain, but only after planting a soft kiss in the unincorporated territory between Rachel’s lips and cheek. Rachel’s spent a lot of time threatening to destroy Adam on national television, but she’s woefully mistaken about the power balance of their relationship.
The same can be said of Quinn’s relationship with Chet, which hits even choppier air in “Wife” after Quinn puts more distance between them. This is where the episode does more with the plot than the characters, setting up a love triangle between Quinn, Chet, and Bill, the man from whom Chet stole both Quinn and the concept of Everlasting, which he and Quinn created together. I still haven’t fully bought into their relationship, but I better understand it now. Based on the blueprints for Chet’s new house and the bombshell about who actually created Everlasting, it seems like Quinn and Chet had the workplace fling that turned into more. They’re the Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean of cheesy reality television. A battle over the rights to the Everlasting kingdom could be an interesting direction, but I still feel like I’m not getting enough information about who Quinn is and UnREAL is approaching the halfway point of its 10-episode season. But “Wife” demonstrates that UnREAL is interested in defining its characters, and by delving more into how Everlasting came about, the show is in a position to illuminate its most aloof character.
- I still have reservations about how hard this show tries to be dark and shocking. The cold open with the host having just bedded a rejected contestant is a perfect example. UnREAL has already made the case that people in this universe do a lot of really terrible things, so the cold open seemed like wasted real estate.
- I’d make the same argument about Adam’s brief stint as a prostitute to shore up investors for his revamped vineyard. The scene successfully drew a parallel between Adam and Rachel, but it felt cheap and a little cliche with the bored, wealthy couple into kink.
- Stuff also happened with Jay and Jeremy but the secondary characters still haven’t earned my interest yet. Oddly enough, I felt Shia’s absence this week.
- For the record though, Jay’s show sounds absolutely terrible.
- Interesting scene between Athena and Shamiqua over the former’s “NeNe crap.” I’m not totally sure what the writers were going for with that dynamic, but it’s hard to read those kinds of exchanges between the participants when, aside from Athena, no one has talked much about why they chose to be on the show in the first place.