If the first season of UnReal was about the battle of the sexes, in the second, it’s all-out war. Quinn, the creator of the Lifetime series’ Bachelor-like show-within-a-show, Everlasting, declared as much in Monday night’s season premiere, after Chet, her ex-lover and former boss, started making moves to seize control of the show. (The name of the episode? “War.”) The season opened with Quinn and Rachel, her protegée/rival/frenemy, getting matching tattoos reading “Money. Dick. Power.” and Chet returned from a men’s retreat in Patagonia with a mantra and a mandate of his own: to reclaim control of what he now calls “my kingdom,” the show that, for 13 years, he took sole credit for creating.
In this week’s episode and next’s, which was made available to critics in advance, sides are chosen and lines are drawn: Quinn and Rachel on one side, Chet and Rachel’s cameraman ex-boyfriend, Jeremy, on the other, plus any male crew members Chet can shame into joining them by suggesting any man who sides with the women has effectively been castrated. (He calls Quinn and Rachel’s side of the dispute “the henhouse.”) In a subtle change from the first season, the crew members running eagerly around Everlasting’s set with clipboards and headsets are more consistently, even exclusively male: This is an environment where men take orders from women, and at least some of them do it without feeling any apparent threat.
But as in any modern war, there’s also collateral damage: Everlasting’s contestants and its “suitor,” a black NFL quarterback trying to rehabilitate his image after a confrontation with a female reporter; the show’s producers, whose main job is coaxing the contestants into behaving badly on camera. In UnReal’s first season, no one emerged from the conflict unscathed, but in the second, the knives have been sharpened and tipped with acid, leaving wounds that will never heal.
One particular noncombatant, however, seems to be singled out for friendly fire: Everlasting’s host, Graham, played by Brennan Elliott. In the first season, the host was a figure of fun, an expensive haircut and a sharp suit with nothing much between them. But in the second, he’s a punching bag. When he’s late getting out of the makeup trailer on the night Everlasting’s shoot, Rachel quips, “What is he, getting a chimpanzee face transplant?” and then barks into her walkie, “If he isn’t on his mark in 15 seconds, I am going to come in there and I am gonna grab him by the balls and I am gonna put him on his mark.” This sparks a chain reaction in the control room, with one producer musing that Graham’s the kind of guy who probably spray-tans his balls, and another confirming from first-hand knowledge that yes, he does. In next week’s episode, Quinn sums up his status on set: “Just cue our moron.”
What has poor Graham done to merit such ignominious treatment? In a season that’s shaping up to be about power struggles, the host’s overinflated ego strikes a particularly sour note: He begins one smug on-camera monologue with the claim that he’s singled-handedly introduced romance to a love-starved nation, an exaggeration as audacious, and even less-merited, as any of Chet’s power plays. But one might also turn for an explanation to a Variety article from last July, in which real-life Bachelor host Chris Harrison called UnReal “really terrible” and mocked its modest viewership. “At the end of the day, no one is watching,” Harrison said. “I mean, absolutely nobody is watching that show.”
Harrison’s overt objection was that UnReal, whose co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, worked on The Bachelor for three years, failed to demonstrate proper “respect” to the franchise. It’s all right for Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show to send up The Bachelor because, at least in Harrison’s mind, they’re cultural institutions of equal stature, but for a new show like UnReal, which isn’t “part of the vernacular,” it’s overstepping bounds. “They were trying to take it another direction,” Harrison explained, “but it doesn’t work that way.”
On the record, UnReal’s cast and creators took this in stride, relishing the confirmation that The Bachelor’s host was watching their show. But it’s hard not to feel just a soupçon of score-settling in the way UnReal is treating its own Harrison stand-in this season—or maybe it’s just that it’s more fun to think of it that way. UnReal is a show that so overtly delights in watching its characters stab each other in the back that it’s tempting to want in on the fun ourselves.