Written by Matt Taylor
It’s a Battle of the Sexes on this week’s episode of UnREAL, which found fiancés turned enemies Quinn and Chet battling to produce the perfect season premiere of “Everlasting.” In one corner, Quinn tries to maintain the illusion of class on the reality series while simultaneously trying to capitalize on the racial tension between the contestants, while Chet attempts to turn the series into a sleaze-fest, complete with nudity and girl-on-girl affection. The result: a foul-mouthed, morally murky and hugely entertaining hour of television that explores a host of social issues while never coming across as preachy.
If last week was all about meeting the new suitor, the second episode, “Insurgent,” focused on the new batch of ladies that would be competing this year. The highlight of the new group is Ruby, played by Denée Benton, a Black Lives Matter activist who hopes to use the show as a platform to promote her various social causes, but may be more attracted to the suitor than she lets on. Benton seamlessly makes her character empathetic and easy to root for, and it will certainly be interesting to see what happens to her character next. But she’s not the only great new addition to the cast: Kim Matula is exceptional as Tiffany, the daughter of NFL coach who is being used as a pawn by just about everyone, and there is a lot of potential in Beth Ann, an ignorant Southern belle played wonderfully by Lindsay Musil.
But the real actor worth celebrating this week is Shiri Appleby, who basically has her Emmy submission ready for next year. Watching Rachel struggle with the fact that her newly earned promotion might not actually pay off, as well as her ongoing challenges with her bipolar disorder, provided some of the episode’s best moments. Appleby knows how to strike just the right balance while developing her character: we sympathize with the fact that she is frequently wronged, if not outright abused, by those around her, but she’s also a genuinely unlikable person who manipulates those around her with little to no remorse. She also displays her character’s inner struggles in quiet, realistic ways – with slight facial twitches, body ticks and devastating glances. While much attention is (rightfully) given to Constance Zimmerman’s scene stealing turn as Quinn, Appleby’s more understated work must not be forgotten.
If there’s any problem I have so far this season, it’s with Chet’s dialogue, which is coming off as very heavy handed. The idea of turning Chet – the most unlikable character in a show filled with unlikable characters – into an Men Right’s Activist is a genius plot development. But his sexist dialogue feels forced, and the way he exhibits his misogyny comes off as cartoonish. While Craig Bierko is as strong as ever in the role, I hope the writers make a more conscious effort to make Chet a realistic antagonist. After all, there are many real life examples of disgusting, power-hungry, women-hating men in America – there’s no need to create one that feels like a work of fiction.
Even with some minor problems, UnREAL maintains a level of excellence that confirms its spot as one of television’s best dramas. And as if the first season wasn’t thought provoking enough, the second season is juggling even more hot-button topics, without sacrificing quality. Furthermore, UnREAL is proof that a show can be sensitive to issues of racism, sexism and mental illness, while still maintaining its edginess and painting its characters with a shade of grey. The show is crude, edgy and filled with unlikable characters, but it’s also insisting that audiences take part in some conversations that are most definitely worth having.
Don’t miss out on this fabulous show.
Overall rating: 9 out of 10