It took most of us quite a while to come around to believing everything we’d heard about UnREAL during its first season. This was a Lifetime original series? Based on The Bachelor? And it was good? Like, really, actually, unironically great? If you finally heard enough stellar reviews to give the show a chance, that’s what you found: a shockingly good, mildly revolutionary show about an industry that even those of us who aren’t actively interested in craved a peek behind the curtain. The show was a guilty pleasure we didn’t actually have to feel any guilt over, and that is a rare, heavily craved thing.
So now that we’re almost at the end of this once-magnificent show’s second season, we have to ask: What the hell happened?
The second season had a lot going for it from the start: the first black suitor was as big a deal as the Everlasting team made it out to be. Hell, the shows this show-within-a-show is based on still haven’t done that. And turning Chet into an MRA mouthpiece was pretty brilliant.
The whole shakeup of the characters and their relationships was, seemingly, a great way to keep stagnation at bay. Madison was more interesting than probably anyone could have foreseen, and Quinn and Rachel were exploring the realities of how women’s romantic and sex lives are inextricably linked to upward mobility when they date or screw within their field. But none of those ideas were nearly as interesting when played out onscreen. And the most reasonable explanation seems to be that no one involved in making this season actually knew how to make anything but ideas.
The biggest misstep that this second season has made is that it’s no longer really about Everlasting. UnREAL was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who worked on The Bachelor for nine seasons, and the short film Sequin Raze (upon which the show is based) for four years. Season one came from a place of true inside understanding, loathing, and obvious, if reluctant, appreciation of its inspiration. It was a personal story about a public property, and it was told so well that is was relatable, even to audiences with zero interest in reality dating shows.
So what happened to make the show suddenly so very bad? To turn it from a guiltless guilty pleasure into a near (if not utter) hate-watch?
Well, for one, the show has shifted its focus in a huge way. It’s not about people working about Everlasting. Instead, it’s moved to loudly commenting on the thing it was already criticizing, but now without all that pesky subtlety. What was the point of bringing Adam back for all of ten minutes this season if not to make sure even the most obtuse audience members get that Everlasting = bad? Adam calls the show “a vortex of evil and dysfunction, turning everything it touches to shit,” and this is Rachel’s response, when asked who she is helping by producing it:
Um, the 16 million people who watch my television show every week, okay? I have single-handedly broken down all these pre-conceived notions on love and race. Because Coleman and I? We are making television that matters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but we actually have the first black suitor. That’s groundbreaking.
Yes, well done. Thank you for reciting the premise of the show back to us, just in case we didn’t understand what we were watching or supposed to be feeling. The show isn’t about Rachel, or Everlasting, or feminism, or power anymore. It’s about the ideas of all of these things, skimming the Cliffs Notes surface of a college freshman’s Critical Studies midterm paper. None of this was helped (although we can’t know if it was fully caused) by Marti Noxon’s departure from the show between seasons.
Also working against the show, to a now unforgivable degree, is the fact that while Shapiro’s idea for the show was clearly based in her own experiences, this season is trying to tackle issues that don’t seem to be in the wheelhouse of anyone involved. Most notably, the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of police brutality and murder against black men.
If this show hadn’t already hit its point of no return, the moment definitely stuck in last week’s episode, when (*spoilers for this season*) Romeo, who was shot by a police officer the week before, was only mentioned with a dismissive “he’ll be fine,” by Rachel when trying to get Darius back to set. And it is far too clear that it is not Rachel— who was at fault for every step in that shooting up until the actual pull of the trigger— but UnREAL itself who is brushing him aside. And to make matters worse, Jay (one half of the only team left, alongside Madison, to enjoy on this show) is used as an even worse mouthpiece than Adam before him, when he has to tell Rachel that what happened to Romeo “is not [her] story to tell.”
But it is. At least according to UnREAL. And it’s insultingly apparent that the writers felt that by giving that line to Jay, a black man, they were giving themselves permission to tell that story, and to tell it though Rachel’s eyes. Rachel, the white woman at the epicenter of the tensions between police and black communities. Rachel, whose sexual relationship with Romeo only muddled both of their stories, but served a purpose if we needed a reason why he was allowed to be a character in this story. (We didn’t.) Rachel, whose story of her own sexual abuse and mental illness is a potentially interesting storyline, but who used black men as a stepping stone to get there.
Even more than the horrible missteps the show has taken, its lack of awareness as to how they make it a totally different, totally inferior entity, is the surest sign that we’re never going to get that beautiful, season one show back.