On Monday, Hulu announced that it would stream the fourth and final season of UnReal. (In contrast to other Hulu shows, the season is available in its entirety now.) The move was, to put it mildly, an unceremonious end for a Peabody-winning series that once promised a prestige makeover for its long-maligned original network (Lifetime).* Based on the experiences of co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on The Bachelor, the behind-the-scenes melodrama never recovered creatively from the departure of its first showrunner (and other co-creator) Marti Noxon, the TV powerhouse behind HBO’s Sharp Objects and AMC’s Dietland. But UnReal’s Season 4 shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed. Yes, it stumbles out of the gate and meanders for a while. But it gradually returns, confidently and furiously, to its greatest strengths: an insider’s indictment of the reality TV-making process and a candidly complicated exploration of female mentorship in a male-run industry.
Even without Shapiro’s knowledge of its inner workings, The Bachelor franchise was always an easy target for criticism. ABC’s reality juggernaut seemed to confirm the worst last summer when a contestant was allegedly raped on the set of Bachelor in Paradise, an offshoot of The Bachelor in which rejected contestants from previous seasons of it and The Bachelorette must hook up with one another to stay on the show. (A crew member recalled a female competitor going limp and a male competitor performing oral and penetrative sex with her while the woman appeared unconscious.) Filming halted, then resumed, while rumors swirled that the incident could spell the end of Paradise. No such thing came to pass, of course. ABC capitalized on the media attention over the sexual assault, then papered over the event with what The Bachelor recapper Ali Barthwell called “one of, if not the most, egregious and irresponsible discussions about sexual assault I have ever seen.” Unsurprisingly, the victim described her experience on Paradise as “the hardest year of my life and my family’s life, besides my mom going through cancer.” “I didn’t want to leave my house,” she continued. “I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was just like, ‘Let this be over.’ And it feels never-ending.”
UnReal’s relationship to The Bachelor franchise is supposed to be one of amplification: The soap heightens and intensifies the dynamics that ostensibly take place behind the scenes of the ABC show. In UnReal’s first season, for example, a combination of the producers’ pill-swapping and emotional manipulation results in one of the contestants jumping off a roof. Season 2 saw a cameraman for Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque show within the show, killing two people who had intended to expose the producers’ misdeeds. (Season 4 spoilers ahead.) In its final eight episodes, UnReal barely managed to top the depravity of Paradise’s real-life debacle. But by (relatively) underplaying its hand for once, UnReal even more effectively torched The Bachelor.
UnReal began with an existential question: What if an ambitious feminist creative discovered that she was really, really good at making misogynistic programming? Everlasting producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) wrestled with that question for three seasons while trying to tweak the show to make more progressive television. (Always standing in Rachel’s way was her boss and only friend Quinn, played by Constance Zimmer.) But at the start of Season 4, Rachel finally gives into her worst impulses. With new producer Tommy (François Arnaud), she creates a lowest-common-denominator version of Everlasting that forces the contestants to instantly couple up, lest they become open to elimination. In short, Rachel and Tommy create Bachelor in Paradise, though even that spinoff isn’t as sadistic as this new iteration of Everlasting, which starts with a “hot or not” game that sends the not-hot-enough women falling through a trapdoor into a stream of mud, and later involves an event in which female contestants pelt each other with eggs. But the pièce de résistance is Rachel’s plan to push two participants, a rapist and his victim, into a room together. A survivor herself, Rachel wants revenge for Maya (Natasha Wilson), the still-traumatized victim—the producer’s sick idea of feminist must-see TV. When Rachel is thwarted in her initial scheme, the Plan B she devises is even more terrifying.
In Episode 5, Rachel talks the rapist, Roger (Tom Brittney), into pairing up with a drunk Noelle (Meagan Holder). Noelle passes out on a bed, and he begins to undress her, as the producers—Rachel, Quinn, and Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman)—watch from the control room. Jay, Everlasting’s least morally compromised producer, rushes to intervene. But Rachel keeps waiting. She mercilessly goaded Maya earlier—“maybe [the rape] wasn’t so horrible, maybe you wanted it”—and finally gets her money shot: an incensed and guilty Maya slashing at Roger’s genitals. Directed by Zimmer, the episode is haunting and nauseating and relentlessly tense, and it underlines that the gambit came at a terrible risk averted only by chance: another on-set rape, this one practically organized by Rachel. Afterward, Quinn displays uncharacteristic squeamishness about the incident, not least because it could backfire on Everlasting: “Using Noelle’s sexual assault exposes us in a way that would shut this show down in a heartbeat.” But Rachel, with the approval of newly ascendant network president Fiona (Tracie Thoms)—a rare black female network executive who has to be an allusion to ABC chief Channing Dungey—spins Maya’s attack into a ratings coup. Rachel edits out the rape, casting Maya’s motivations in a Fatal Attraction–esque light. Then, she uses the remaining contestants to discredit Maya in an eerie parallel to Paradise’s minimization of its alleged sexual assault, which was also largely enacted through the competitors’ uninformed statements about consent and responsibility.
Rachel’s exploitation of Maya and Noelle is framed as one of the worst things this morally bankrupt character has ever done: She vomits when she sees her handiwork at an Everlasting watch party, and her hair starts falling out in clumps thereafter. What she puts on the air is ludicrous and frantic and vile—and the fact that it bears such a strong resemblance to last season’s Paradise is absolutely damning. The incident in Paradise is so appalling, it seems, that it needs the barest of exaggeration to count as a stomach-churning new low.
It’s too bad much of the rest of UnReal’s Season 4 is so toothless. The idea that each of the contestants is obsessed with their reality-TV images and the spinoffs they could hustle out of their Everlasting appearances is smart, but ultimately underdeveloped. The live Everlasting series finale—during which Quinn, the showrunner, appears in front of the camera to clarify to loyal viewers that Roger sexually assaulted Noelle, Maya deserves to be treated like a hero, and that the show covered the whole thing up—strained credulity to the breaking point and beyond.
And yet, the latter half of Season 4 rises above its previous two predecessors. In particular, there’s something irresistibly bittersweet about the way Rachel and Quinn fight each other all season, then find their way toward one another by the end. It was utterly believable that the damaged Rachel would resent a pregnant Quinn for considering nurturing anyone else, going so far as to tell her boss, “Some women are not meant to be mothers, and you’re one of them.” And it was altogether fitting that Quinn couldn’t relinquish control over Rachel’s life, even when the younger woman was desperate to come clean and start fresh. In the end, Quinn blames Rachel’s franchise-ending decisions on Tommy, against her protege’s wishes.
UnReal couldn’t sustain its own feminist ambitions: Every season after the impressive first spun its wheels as it endeavored, and largely failed, to find new ways to express Rachel’s primal struggle. But it was right to focus on the importance of female friendships in a world that teaches women they need a man, and honest about how those relationships aren’t always wholly nourishing. And UnReal was frequently clever in exploring the areas where feminist rhetoric bled into, even propped up, unchecked narcissism. It couldn’t always follow up on its promises, but it knew how to wield a blade.
*Correction, July 23, 2018: This article originally misstated that Lifetime was involved in the sale of UnReal’s fourth season to Hulu. It was not; Hulu acquired the season from A+E as an original series.