The Lifetime series UnReal, which takes place on the set of a Bachelor-like show called Everlasting, constantly plays with the border between reality and fiction and sometimes questions whether there is one at all. So it’s only fitting that the show’s rocky second season has been haunted by D.T. Max’s June New Yorker profile, which outlined an ongoing and, eventually, unresolvable conflict between co-creators Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon—one that parallels the on-screen battle between ambitious, idealistic Everlasting producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her showrunner boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer). The parallels aren’t exact, of course, and it’s important not to collapse the distinction between fiction informed by experience and autobiography, an especially fraught tendency when it comes to art made by women. But the New Yorker article does give us one way of explaining why UnReal, which was one of last year’s most promising new shows, has declined so precipitously in its second season, a collapse vividly illustrated by this week’s train wreck of an episode.
According to Max, tensions between Shapiro and Noxon flared over Noxon’s responsibilities to Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, a new series she was developing at the same time as she was working on UnReal’s first season. Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer who wrote and directed Sequin Raze, the short film that inspired UnReal, was new to scripted television, so Lifetime brought in Noxon, a nearly 20-year veteran of the industry whose credits go back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Noxon, Max says, “helped Shapiro give her short the arc of a television season” and “to decode what network executives wanted, even when they couldn’t articulate it.” “Shapiro tended to write subtext,” he says. “Noxon knew that TV had to be explicit.”
UnReal’s second season, which was largely produced after Noxon left to focus on Girlfriends’ Guide, has had no trouble being explicit. “We don’t solve problems,” Rachel explains in the season premiere. “We create them and point cameras at them.” But it’s been choppy and awkwardly paced, lunging for cultural significance and asserting changes in the characters’ lives without credibly developing them. A show that prided itself on depicting the complex dynamics of friendships between professional women has been swamped by superfluous male love interests: Rachel and Quinn both have new boyfriends, and their exes are still lurking around the set as well, leaving precious little time for them to interact solely with each other. There wasn’t a single scene in Monday night’s “Ambush” that passed the Bechdel Test.
Worse still has been the season’s treatment of race, an issue that’s taken center stage after productively lurking around the first season’s edges. Rachel, an ardent feminist who is tragically skilled at exploiting female anguish for TV ratings, is convinced she’s making history by securing Everlasting’s first black suitor—a Rubicon that real programs like The Bachelor have yet to cross. And she’s willing to do anything in pursuit of that goal, including ruining the lives of everyone on the show. She’s white liberalism in its most monstrous form, so in love with the symbolism of her actions that she’s blind to the way she’s treating the show’s flesh-and-blood black contestants. She prods an underling to goad a woman whose fiancé died in a car crash while she was driving until the contestant breaks down in sobs on camera. She coaxes a Black Lives Matter activist to quit college and come on the show, only for the activist’s father to show up on set when she’s in bed with the suitor.* It becomes hard to believe that even Rachel still thinks she’s pursuing her noble stated goal, especially since her bid to craft a historic season of Everlasting is mixed in with her battle to gain control of the show.
Rachel’s liberal monstrosity hit a new high in “Ambush,” when she sent the police after her much-vaunted black suitor, pro football quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt). He and his cousin, Romeo, who is also black, had driven the show’s Bentley off the grounds with two white female contestants in the back seat. Rather than send one of her minions after them, Rachel, with some prodding from her boyfriend, Coleman (Michael Rady), Everlasting’s current showrunner, called the car in as stolen and assembled a camera crew to capture the inevitable confrontation. With their wallets and cellphones confiscated by the production, Darius and Romeo had no way of proving they were who they said they were, and Rachel and Colman figuratively licked their lips by the side of the road as their cameras captured systemic racism in action. But when one officer drew her gun, Rachel panicked and ran out of the darkness, sparking a burst of confusion that ended with Romeo getting shot.
Back at base camp, Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), Everlasting’s only black producer, lit into Rachel for overstepping her bounds: “This is not your story to tell.” And to its limited credit, UnReal seems aware of the risks inherent in dealing with anti-black police violence on a show whose protagonists are exclusively white—although the line is also an example of what TV writers call “lampshading,” where you deal with a problem in the script by calling attention to it rather than resolving it. (The episode was written by Ariana Jackson, who is black, and directed by Shapiro.) “Ambush” isn’t the story of a black man getting shot by the police but of the megalomaniacal white liberal who gets him shot.
That very approach, however, reduces Romeo’s shooting, which appears to be critical but not fatal, to an instrument of Rachel’s character development. Romeo’s barely even a character in his own right: Before “Ambush,” he’d been absent from UnReal for several episodes and had to be brought back so the show had a black man to shoot who wasn’t Darius. As academic Kristen Warner pointed out on Twitter, in the commercial-break featurette Lifetime uses to showcase UnReal’s female directors, Shapiro described how she had a special rig built for the scene where Rachel trips as she’s running toward Darius’ car, so that as she hits the ground the camera could flip to show how “her world has turned upside-down.” Her world.
UnReal is still a fantastically ambitious show, one that wants to deal with significant issues in a way that’s still accessible to a mass audience. (That audience isn’t showing up yet but no matter.) Unfortunately, it’s stumbling badly when it comes to turning those ideas into watchable, coherent drama. Its delicate balance has been disrupted, with the result that every character who’s not Rachel has become a two-dimensional caricature. Shapiro described the first season as a platonic love story between Rachel and Quinn, but in the second, Quinn has been reduced to an ever-flowing fountain of caustic bile. Pitching the plotline where Rachel goes behind Quinn’s back to try and seize control of Everlasting was, according to Max, one of the last things Noxon did before she left—and it’s tempting, if perhaps not entirely fair, to see Season 2 as Shapiro’s revenge, throwing the show’s on-screen mentor under the bus while Shapiro’s fictional alter ego runs wild.
Squint hard enough at UnReal’s second season, and you can find a portrait of a politically conscious creator in over her head, struggling to make her show about something while keeping the network brass both happy and distant. But Lifetime’s sticky fingers seem to be all over the place, especially when it comes to upping the romance quotient. (Max reported that the network had strongly suggested Shapiro keep Rachel’s cameraman ex-boyfriend, Jeremy, in the mix, despite having little practical use for him.) Finessing network feedback and structuring a solid season are some of a veteran showrunner’s most valuable tools, and in Noxon’s absence, UnReal is sorely lacking both. This season isn’t a complete train wreck, and every time it seems about to collapse, some scene, usually involving Appleby’s livewire performance, turns up as a reminder of why UnReal is still worth watching. But if the show were a contestant on Everlasting, it would be looking pretty seriously at being eliminated before the final round, with a lot of work to do before it gets that final rose.
*Correction, July 20, 2016: This post originally misstated that Rachel arranged for Ruby’s father to show up on set. Quinn, not Rachel, invited Ruby’s father.