Written by Matt Taylor
It might be hard to believe, but the home of television’s most exciting, twisted series is Lifetime. Yet, UnREAL stands toe-to-toe with the best of HBO, AMC and FX, amongst other critically acclaimed networks. And if the second season premiere is any indication, it’s only going to continue to be topical, darkly funny and hugely addictive.
Last year, UnREAL focused largely on producer duo Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) as they struggled to manufacture drama on the set of Everlasting, a fictional dating show modeled after The Bachelor. But, in the second season, Quinn and Rachel find themselves on top of their game and running the show, making history in the process by casting a black bachelor (something that the real life Bachelor has yet to do). But while Rachel may speak about how she’s changing history by making strides in on-air representation, she’s also instructing her team to manipulate the contestants by taking advantage of the understated racial tension on set, all in the names of “good” TV. And, with a group of girls that includes a Confederate flag donning racist and a Black Lives Matter activist, there will certainly be fireworks.
The genius of UnREAL, however, is that the series taps into the audience’s natural desire to watch the “drama” unfold between the contestants, while simultaneously initiating a conversation about the more problematic aspects of reality television. The first season thoroughly explored the intense misogyny perpetuated by shows like The Bachelor, in the way they objectify women, label them as either “saints” or “whores”, and then pit them against one another to compete for a man. Season two is broadening the scope, however, by exploring race relations and the emerging Men’s Rights Activist Movement. Yet, the show is always quite funny and insanely entertaining, encouraging difficult conversations while also keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.
And the (cold) heart of this series is the bond between Rachel and Quinn. While it has become something of a tired comparison, the two are definitely reminiscent of Walt and Jesse from Breaking Bad in the way that much of the suspense derives from just how awful they are willing to become for their jobs. Last season found Rachel struggling to maintain her conscience while simultaneously furthering her career. But, in the best scene of the season opener, she pushes one of the less experienced producers to tears by probing into the dark pasts of one of this season’s contestants. This scene encompasses everything that makes UnREAL worth watching: it’s shocking, almost nauseatingly intense, and showcasing a wicked sense of humor. While Rachel may not be committing crimes as ruthless as Walter White, she is, in many ways, just as evil and compelling as Bryan Cranston’s now famous anti-hero. And series star Shiri Appleby is certainly worthy of an Emmy.
Despite critical acclaim, the first season of UnREAL was far from the breakout ratings hit that Lifetime deserved. Furthermore, the overall critical reception, while undeniably strong, was somewhat muted, compared to the overwhelming amount of hype that propels shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards into household names. With any luck, the show will be held in much higher regard, and gain the credit it deserves for telling one of the compelling tale of morality on television since Breaking Bad, and being hugely funny while doing so.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10