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Unreal review: the show's second season aims to shock, titillate, and critique

Lifetime's series tries to hide meaning in drama

The first tipoff that Lifetime’s Unreal is going to be more depraved in its second season comes about two minutes in, at a party celebrating the network’s approval of Everlasting’s newest suitor. Rachel, the unpredictable and manipulative producer who’s the closest thing to a protagonist we’ve got, is pressed against a floor-to-ceiling glass window, having sex with the suitor’s manager. "The first black suitor," she moans. "We’re gonna make history." It’s a ridiculous moment, but any other show would have a much harder time pulling off the "orgasming for social justice" plot point. Unreal has positioned itself as a show that can stick it to the man while giving the man something titillating to look at. And in Unreal’s second season, it’s harder than ever to extricate the show’s sincere attempts at dismantling power from its exploitation of uncomfortable topics for entertainment value.

Everything gets a little more tangled

That’s the starting point this season: Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) are trying to inject some life into their version of Everlasting (the version in which Quinn and Rachel sit at the top of the production team roster) by successfully paving the way for the show’s first black suitor, an NFL player named Darius Beck (B.J. Britt). Like The Bachelor franchise, the fictional show takes some inspiration from, Everlasting has never before had a black suitor. On its own, this seems like a worthwhile subject for Unreal to tackle — the fact that in the 20-season history of The Bachelor, there has (still) never been a bachelor of color, is symptomatic of deeply ingrained racism in Hollywood, and dated ideas about what viewers want. But make no mistake — Unreal’s producers are not saviors of a stubborn and biased industry (as much as they might presume themselves to be), and Everlasting is not a bastion of progressive thought. Last season, Unreal was content to let its points around race and gender (like a sexual assault in the pool house and a producer's struggles to advance in his career as a gay black man) merely exist, without much analysis. This season, Unreal is aggressively trying to make a point, but after the first two episodes, it’s not quite clear what that is yet.

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Slightly muddling Unreal’s primary Darius Beck plotline is the return of Chet (Craig Bierko). Last season, Chet was kicked off of Everlasting after almost ruining the show’s finale. But after going on a "paleolithic lifestyle retreat," he comes back: thinner, spiteful, and ready for vengeance. Chet almost immediately tries to overthrow Everlasting by simultaneously producing a raunchier version of it with the same exact cast, where ball gowns are traded in for bikinis. Quinn and Chet make a deal: Divvy up the crew, and whichever team makes a more compelling season will get the final network air time. Chet almost single-handedly takes on this season's token role of bad man. He says things like, "Women are made to nurture, be adored," men should be able to "kill...with their hands," and at one point refers to the women on Everlasting as "harpees," "twats," and "hens," in the course of a single thought. His misogyny hasn’t led to any revelations so far — it’s almost entirely attributed to the fact that he’s just an asshole.

But it’s not only Chet who seems more insufferable than usual. Unreal’s writers have seemingly decided this season to make every character even more unlikeable. Quinn and Rachel, because they’re running the show together, sometimes seem closer than ever, but they fundamentally disagree on the significance of Beck as a suitor. Several times over the course of the first two episodes, Rachel says she’s "making history" with such obnoxious self-righteousness it’s hard not to hope for her to fail. Quinn, on the other hand, sees Beck as a chance to exploit race for ratings: "The minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down." And unlike last season’s suitor, the British blond boy Adam Cromwell, Beck isn’t given much internal complexity. That could very likely change later in the season, but in the first few episodes he’s mostly a symbolic figure for the other characters to discuss.

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The contestants, too, are little more than one-dimensional caricatures. Ruby Carter, a Black Lives Matter activist, is the most compelling contestant so far — she drops out of college after Rachel convinces her that Everlasting could give her a platform for her message. She wears an "I can’t breathe" shirt on set, and Quinn refers to her only as the "angry black woman." Other Quinn-approved contestants include a "hot racist" (she wears a Confederate flag bikini to a pool party, then regrets it because she actually likes Darius), and a "super sexy Pakistani woman who might have links to Osama bin Laden" (Quinn’s words). It’s still early, but one of last season’s failures was its inability to fully flesh out more than one or two of the contestants before they disappeared, a trend that continues into this run. Unreal’s show-within-a-show style means it often has parallel storylines running at once, and drama is usually favored over character development.

Drama is usually favored over character development

For now, Unreal is still a show about using stylized fairy tales to compensate for real-life trauma. Its depiction of both reality and reality TV are heavily dramatized — a tactic that renders the show highly watchable, but could muddy any real chance at making a clear point. After Ruby has a conversation with Darius about Black Lives Matter, Quinn says to Rachel, "I know you think you’re televising the revolution, but what we need right now are wet panties." And for now, that’s the party line Unreal is sticking with.

Unreal premieres June 6th at 10PM ET on Lifetime.