This summer, an idiotic bozo obsessed with bogus notions of masculinity is duking it out with a competent, amoral bitch for control of a lucrative kingdom. They are Chet (Craig Bierko) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), two of the supporting players on Lifetime’s brilliant and bitter UnReal. Set behind the scenes of a reality show, UnReal uses its seemingly frivolous setting to stage one of the darkest, most incisive shows on television. Its supercharged second season, which premieres Monday night, slams our moment’s hottest topics into a blender and hits frappe. The resulting concoction, made of election dynamics, confederate flags, Black Lives Matter, football, diversity, gender norms, voyeurism, narcissism, hedonism, nihilism, cruelty, manipulation, and mental illness is like a juice fast created by a demon: It looks great, tastes better, and tears you apart from the inside, leaving you gutted—which is a brutal kind of cleansed.
UnReal’s protagonist, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), is a savant producer on the long-running reality dating show Everlasting, a simulacra of ABC’s The Bachelor. Rachel is an uncanny empath who simultaneously despises manipulating reality TV contestants and lives for it. Like someone with a shameful sexual predilection, she keeps doing that which disgusts her—making a reality TV show—because it turns her on. Minutes into the new season, we see Rachel having sex and moaning about her latest accomplishment: “It was me! The first black suitor! We’re gonna make history.”
This is the premise of the new season: Rachel, newly promoted to Everlasting showrunner by her boss/mentor/friend/enemy Quinn, herself recently promoted, has cast black quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt) as the first black suitor in Everlasting’s history. Darius, like last year’s hunk, Adam, agrees to appear on Everlasting because he has a P.R. problem, one inspired by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Beck recently lost his temper on a white female reporter, saying “bitch, please” before storming out of the locker room. It was, in the words of the network head, a “scary” moment that can most effectively be smoothed over by romancing a white girl on national television.
Rachel, who we first laid eyes on in Season 1 wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, loves that casting a black suitor aligns with her politics: Darius represents step forward in the politics of representation. But Quinn only cares about ratings. “He’s not black, he’s football black,” she assures the head of the network, before giving him a hard sell so cynical one wonders if it won’t convince The Bachelor, which still has not cast a black man as its leading man, to follow in UnReal’s footsteps. “I promise you 20 million viewers the minute he lays black hands on a white ass, ” she says. “Or I can get you another small-dicked white boy.”
Values don’t survive on UnReal. They are always compromised. There are no slippery slopes, only avalanches and cliff faces. The ends justify the means but the means are so vicious, they render the ends unrecognizable. Rachel wants to work on a progressive show, but she spends her days mastering hot take hot potato. She persuades Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), a Southern girl who wore a Confederate bikini on Instagram, to wear it during the first episode. “You’re not embarrassed of your heritage, are you?” Rachel needles Beth Ann. “Freedom of speech is so important,” she purrs. Rachel also convinces Ruby (Denée Benton), a politically minded black woman, to push off her college graduation to appear on the show, promising her a platform for her activism, and then does everything she can to engineer a catfight between her and Beth Ann.
In one scene, Rachel plays Cyrano de Bergerac to Madison (Genevieve Buechner), a meek, newbie producer trying to get a promo line from Chantal (Meagan Tandy), a female contestant whose fiancé recently died in a car accident. Madison hesitantly parrots Rachel as she asks invasive and cruel questions to elicit the most electric material. When it’s over, Madison vomits and feels “amazing.” The Bachelor can often seem like a lesson in mass brainwashing: Through competition and isolation, a group of women (or men) can be made to want anything, including a moderately desirable lunkhead. UnReal focuses on the brainwashing that takes place behind the cameras, where competition and isolation turn ethics into a game.
What UnReal never does is make the contestants look like simps. None of the women are the cardboard cliché Everlasting paints them as. (Quinn has promised the network a “terrorist,” and so, for the first episode, a Muslim woman who has never worn a headscarf is pressured into doing so.) Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), a producer with some moral limits, tries to help Ruby navigate Everlasting without making a fool of herself. He convinces her not to take the catfight bait, for example. But Ruby cares more about her principles than she does about lasting on the show. After Darius treats Beth Ann more kindly than she deserves, Ruby goes to talk to him, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. On Everlasting, she will indubitably become the angry black woman; on UnReal, we see her choose that stereotype as the lesser of available evils.
Because Rachel believes herself to be in charge, she has checked whatever quibbles she has about Everlasting, a show she once called “Satan’s asshole.” She’s all in. But Quinn is not all out. She claims she’s ready to turn day-to-day oversight over to Rachel, but she first must battle Chet, her ex and former boss whom she bounced from power at the end of last season. Chet has spent the last six months in Patagonia, losing 30 pounds and getting in touch with his manhood. He returns ready to take back his “kingdom,” spewing men’s rights talking points, wondering how Everlasting got so pussified. In a bravura exchange, Quinn and Chet debate what Everlasting should be. Chet wants an agro, trashy, male-gaze version of the show, full of drunk, topless women, same-sex kissing in hot tubs, throwing themselves at studs. (Think of the turn Real World made long ago with its Las Vegas season.) Quinn counters with the case for the status quo, a boss lady arguing that the only thing Americans want to see is a fairy tale where a man ends up with a “wifey.” It’s UnReal at its best, staging an argument that is actually an argument against the argument, just like it’s a show about a reality show that skewers reality shows.