How ‘UnREAL’ Season 2 Turned the Show Into the Very Thing It Set Out to Deconstruct
When we published our rankings of the best TV of the year so far back in June, UnREAL came in second on my list. The show was lucky; if we published the same list today, there’s no way it would make the cut. Season 2 replaced feminist meta-fiction, razor-sharp wit, and searing social commentary with redundant gambits, overly-confident twists, and excessive reveals — so excessive that I began to wonder if there was a hotline I could call because UnREAL had become a harm to itself and others.
The show’s storytelling hasn’t always been tidy, but the messy quality of its characters — specifically Quinn and Rachel — was originally what made the Lifetime series so painfully relatable and endearing. Unfortunately, Season 2 was just plain painful, as the show transformed into an ouroboros of melodrama, blatantly manufacturing its shocking twists and ultimately becoming the very thing it originally set out to deconstruct: An exploitative feat of narrative engineering. (SPOILERS to follow.)
Season 2 found Shiri Appleby’s Rachel and Constance Zimmer’s Quinn in a more confident position, with the former promoted to showrunner, until Craig Bierko’s Chet returned to muck things up and the network brought in award-winning producer Coleman Wasserman to fix it. As soon as Coleman arrived and started making goopy eyes at Rachel, UnREAL’s second season practically took a suicidal lunge off the cliff.
In conversations with other UnReal fans, I’ve struggled to defend some of the narrative decisions in Season 2, which followed Rachel and Quinn as they introduced a black suitor to Everlasting, the reality dating show they produce, in an attempt to make reality television history. But it’s almost impossible to defend episodes like “Ambush.” In the crucial midseason installment, Rachel calls the cops on bachelor Darius (BJ Britt) and his best friend Romeo (Gentry White) after they speed off in a car. Just as the confrontation escalates, Rachel sprints toward the scene and startles one of the officers, who shoots Romeo in the arm.
It’s an unsavory scene, and one that feels all the more misguided because it was engineered by a white woman who has spent much of this season of UnREAL — as well as its fictional show-within-a-show — manufacturing and exploiting racial tension. Later in the episode, Jay smartly warns Rachel that this isn’t her story to tell, as if the show itself had a brief moment of self-aware clarity. UnREAL isn’t necessarily the wrong place to explore such heavy subject matter, but the perspective was uncomfortably off.
For their part, UnREAL co-creator and showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and executive producer Stacy Rukeyser are aware that the episode was not well-received. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter following this week’s season finale, Rukeyser said:
It was always going to be this thing that Rachel made happen and a huge f—up and mistake on her part and the ramifications of that. Again, if that’s not an O.K. story to tell, that’s definitely a valid viewpoint. I still personally believe that I’d rather have more discussion of these issues than less. The more we talk about these things, the better.
She does make a good point, but it’s only valid if they’re actually internalizing the (entirely fair) criticisms of Season 2 in a meaningful way. Shapiro’s comments are a bit more enlightening:
I’m still proud of us for swinging for the fences and we legitimately feel like, yes, all of those comments are valid. Maybe it wasn’t our story to tell; it definitely wasn’t Rachel’s story to tell. It’s taking on big stuff and trying to do a lot in an hour of very entertaining television.
That quote perfectly sums up the ambitious, convoluted narrative of Season 2. If you’re trying to pinpoint the key difference between the show’s first and second seasons, it could be the absence of UnReal co-creator and Season 1 showrunner Marti Noxon, who left the series to focus on other projects. That loss is keenly felt not only in the police shooting episode, but in this season’s other big problem: Rachel’s “shocking” reveal that she was raped by one of her mom’s patients.
It was one of Season 2’s most divisive moments: After Rachel’s physically assaulted by ex-boyfriend Jeremy, she spirals out of control and checks herself into a mental health facility to be treated by her mom, thus explaining their unhealthy relationship. When Coleman comes to her rescue, Rachel — groggy from an abundance of prescription medication — tells him that she was sexually assaulted as a pre-teen, and that her mom has been “treating” her in an effort to cover it up. Coleman subsequently takes advantage of Rachel’s medicated state by persuading her to confess to various dirty deeds she committed with Quinn, which he captures on camera.
To make matters worse, when Jeremy finds out about Rachel’s history, he has a visibly exaggerated a-ha moment; ah, yes, finally, that explains everything.
Rape is all too real and tragic, but the way UnREAL handled it was unfortunate to say the least, and a major missed opportunity to explore a part of Rachel’s history that is sadly relatable and potentially poignant. Reducing rape to a plot twist manufactured for the sake of melodrama is insulting to victims, to viewers, and to the development of these characters. It’s disappointing because UnREAL is capable of doing so much better. Rachel deserves better, we deserve better, they should know better.
Perhaps if Season 2’s plot hadn’t been so overcrowded (Coleman, an undercover reporter, the ongoing tug-of-war between Quinn, Chet, and Rachel, the social and racial commentary, Quinn’s sudden interest in motherhood, the police brutality scene, and an epic moment in which a contestant literally craps her pants), maybe there would have been enough time to explore a sexual assault story, which deserved more nuance and room to breathe. It certainly doesn’t feel like that particular plot point was approached with the thoughtfulness it required; especially when characters like Jeremy and Coleman and Rachel’s mom were depicted as woefully cartoonish villains.
Over the last couple of years, Lifetime has undergone a bit of rebranding; instead of trying to change perception by introducing smart original programming, the network is leaning into the idea of being the place for soapy melodrama. There was A Deadly Adoption, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell’s straight-faced satire of Lifetime original movies, and James Franco’s lesbian vampire remake of cult TV classic Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? If you were watching the UnREAL Season 2 finale, you probably saw an ad for the sequel to Stalked by My Doctor, which begins with the gleefully campy line, “This Labor Day, Eric Roberts is BACK.” (Only on Lifetime would Eric Roberts’ return be cause for celebration.)
UnREAL previously felt like the exception to this rebranding rule. The first season was a lethally sharp deconstruction of exploitative reality television, a fearlessly feminist series with commentary that wasn’t so much biting as gnawing to an unnerving degree. The drama was heightened, but the show explored the complicated relationships women have with each other, men, and their careers in a way that stirred recognition. Cliffhangers and reveals felt like meta-reflections of the drama Quinn and Rachel were producing, which horrifically seeped into their own lives.
Most viewers would agree that Mary’s death in Season 1 was a (forgivable) misstep in an otherwise fantastic season of television because it was the one moment that seemed disingenuously manufactured. Season 2 didn’t just double down on those kinds of shocks, it multiplied them by 10 — one for every episode. It was a troubling development, and one that made UnREAL seem as dubious as the very culture it’s putting on blast. Season 2 felt less like satire than pop cultural cannibalism.
But I’m not ready to write UnREAL off just yet. Despite the season’s resemblance to bad reality TV or the sort of heavy-handed melodrama we’ve come to expect from Lifetime, it also reminded me of another disappointing sophomore TV season: Friday Night Lights. From the forced romantic couplings to the abrupt, bizarre changes in character behavior (Quinn wants babies, Jeremy is a sociopath) and yes, the entirely unnecessary (possible) murder that happens in the finale — clearly the result of the show’s creatives backing themselves into a narrative corner.
Friday Night Lights Season 2 took a forced turn, one largely the result of network pressure to up the dramatic ante and increase viewership. For the most part, Season 3 subsequently ignored the events of Season 2, and so did the fans. Lifetime execs may not be pressuring the UnREAL crew to manufacture additional drama, but it sure seemed like the show tried to meet someone’s expectations, real or imagined. Perhaps their Season 2 plans were just too ambitious; perhaps they had become too confident in the series following the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Season 1. Or perhaps they were too impatient to let these stories unfold over the course of multiple seasons. Whatever the case, it was all too much.
Despite an underwhelming second season, Friday Night Lights went on to become one of the greatest dramas in television history. So there’s still hope that UnREAL can match — or even exceed — the potential of that first great season. The future hinges entirely on what happens next.