Lifetime's 'Bachelor'-esque soap is back, this time with a formidable female suitor

By David Canfield
February 26, 2018 at 11:02 PM EST
Bettina Strauss/Lifetime
S3 E1
B+
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“Lies are what kill us,” goes the first line of UnREAL’s third season. “The stress of keeping up those lies is poison. Every lie we tell is one step closer to the grave.”

Last season, UnREAL seemed to mirror the slow-moving trainwreck of its Bachelor-esque show-within-a-show, Everlasting. After a successful freshman run, the Lifetime drama tried tackling a host of sensitive, hot-button issues — police brutality and gender-based violence among them — and veered, well, slightly off course. Just as the future of Everlasting was up in the air, what with the multiple murders and deaths on its rap sheet, so too did a third season of UnREAL feel uncertain.

But after a long hiatus, the show is back — and eager to leave the past behind: Season 3’s premiere opens on Rachel in a cult-like retreat, where she’s been for the last six months, atoning for all the lies she’s ever told and maintaining a “sober streak” of truth telling. Fortunately UnREAL knows us well enough not to buy into the will-she-or-won’t-she game; it doesn’t exactly draw out Rachel’s reluctance to come back to the place where she’s now had multiple mental breakdowns. By the end of the season premiere’s first scene, Quinn has come to find her, revealed that Everlasting is on the brink of cancellation, and convinced her to return to her old, manipulating duties on the show. “You want me to say it?” Quinn asks her. “I need you. I miss you.” Enough said.

After last season’s failed race-focused experiment — again, on both the part of UnREAL and Everlasting — Quinn has a new gimmick to pitch Gary and the network: a female suitor. The woman in question is Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald, late of Masters of Sex), described as the “female Elon Musk”: an ultra-successful venture capitalist who has found that with every step she’s taken toward success, it’s gotten that much harder to find “the right guy.” Gary is initially dismissive, even ignoring Chet’s (yes, he’s still around) claims that this could net the show its first Emmy, but he comes around, handing Quinn an ultimatum: “If this goes south like last year, you’re fired.” (Luckily, UnREAL appears to have a bit more security than that.) Gary also requests that Madison, the once-meek production assistant who rose to cutthroat competition last year, return to work on the show (thereby admitting that they’ve had at least one, ahem, encounter).

Rachel returns to Everlasting with a mantra those around her (not to mention any discerning viewer) can’t help but greet with skepticism: “I’m going to be fine; I’m going to make it through.” For that to be true, past cannot be prologue. In any case, she does maintain her honesty tour even as she reacquaints herself with Everlasting’s landscape of lies. She bumps into Chet — arrogant as ever, and now once again dating a seemingly simple-minded model (this time named Crystal) — and doesn’t hold back when he asks what she really thinks of him. “You are an overpaid, incompetent man-baby who’s riding on the backs of women who do all of the work for you,” she says, before getting a few more jabs in. (Notably: that he pitched Serena as his own choice, but she was Rachel and Quinn’s idea.) Quinn reassures Chet that “it’s only a phase,” to which he fairly retorts, “Hope she doesn’t kill anybody between now and then.”

Chet is of course referring to the fatal car crash between Rachel and Jeremy, and Yael and Coleman; the latter two, who’d inflamed Rachel’s mental health and jealousy issues, died. And it was intentional on Jeremy’s part — even if he’s still claiming that he only did it because Rachel told him to and that he’d do anything for her. (First of all, yuck — let’s not forget that season 2 physical assault — and second of all, for the record, Rachel maintains she was just “venting.”) Jeremy, Chet, Quinn, and Rachel come together to hash things out. Jeremy says he’s sober now and apologizes for hitting Rachel; Chet forces them all into a binding handshake where they “vow to stay essentially silent about this one thing.” (The story remains, according to Quinn, that the crash was an accident.) That probably won’t work well for Rachel’s honesty tour.

So that’s that for cleanup — before long, we’re off to the races. We get a brief preview of Serena as she interacts with Rachel; Serena’s appreciative of her no-BS demeanor and frank discussion of the show’s process, but it quickly becomes clear that the new suitor is going to clash with Quinn. Serena hates the sparkly, revealing turquoise dress production has put her in — “I look like a stripper mermaid,” she complains — and says with so much skin showing she won’t feel comfortable talking to people. “Good news,” Quinn cracks in her first of many excellent zingers this episode: “Nobody’s going to be listening — just staring.” Then, another Quinn quip as the episode gears up for filming, and the potential male partners are gradually introduced: “May they all be blessed with thick dicks and even thicker heads of hair.”

The replacement for the ethically dubious Dr. Wagerstein of seasons past is Dr. Simon (played by Brandon Jay McLaren), a former corporate crisis counselor. He’s not quite as open as his predecessor: He’s disturbed when Quinn, Rachel, returnee Jay, and the rest of production ask him for “dirt” on the contestants and listens in near-disbelief as they cynically chatter about this season’s competing men. A few contestants immediately emerge as standouts: Owen, a hunky fireman who shows Serena pics of his daughter; Jasper, a wily Wall Street charmer with a British accent; Alexei, the “James Dean of the dance world” who had a cocaine problem (“We’re so lucky we got him,” Quinn earnestly says); and August, a Peace Corps-serving, Africa-visiting, man-bun-sporting dreamboat who is just Rachel’s type. (Recap continues on page 2)

But the bachelor who takes up the most space in this episode is actually Norman, a (very) short Kentucky Derby jockey whose mere presence irritates Serena. She tells Rachel he’s a cruel “sight gag” and demands production replace him with “someone real.” Rachel asks her to stick it out, but Serena goes rogue, pulling Norman aside, telling him he’s just a ratings stunt, and cutting him from the show without approval. Quinn doesn’t stand for this, storming the set and peeved by Rachel’s attempted “honesty.” “I told Rachel I have to have a backup guy,” Serena firmly tells Quinn. “Now you need to get me one.” She then heads out with Owen, the fireman, to play a little hooky.

Serena had already flirted with Jasper a bit, culminating in a sexy moment of tension which Quinn enthusiastically dubbed a “panty drop” (have I mentioned I love Quinn?), but she seems to connect with Owen more, away from all the craziness. She admits to being overwhelmed and confesses, “My life is a lot more boring than people think.” Owen responds by revealing his military service in Fallujah. She thanks him for the “jailbreak,” Owen asks for permission to kiss her, and then he does just that.

Rachel eventually finds them, chasing Owen away before privately, gently scolding Serena for having the audacity to have a first kiss “off camera.” She assures Serena that if she doesn’t play ball, Quinn will turn her into a “bitch” in the editing room. “You are smart, pretty, and successful — half of America already hates you,” Rachel explains, sprinkling in some not-so-subtle commentary on the fall of a certain presidential candidate. Serena bristles at this, even more so when Rachel suggests she kiss Norman, of all people, to get America on her side. We’re already seeing the beginning stages of the dangerously manipulative Rachel coming out: “Give me a chance to make this right for you.”

But Serena goes for it: She gets plastered, makes out with a wounded Norman for every camera to see, and parties like she’s a pro at it, tequila shots constantly in hand and men all around her. Quinn is loving it in the control room; Dr. Simon less so. “She’s clearly had way too much to drink,” he says. “I’m not comfortable with this.” (Later, he takes a special interest in Rachel, indicating there’s more to him than meets the eye.) Perhaps in a sign of improvement, Quinn gauges his and Rachel’s discomfort and actually decides to put an end to filming for the night. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The contestants may have scattered, but Serena is still out having fun — having hot and heavy sex with Norman, to be exact, which Rachel unfortunately catches in the heat of the moment.

“I don’t even kiss guys until the third date,” Serena admits to Rachel after vomiting, with Norman having been banished to the contestants’ quarters. “I don’t even use emojis.” In a tearful speech, she then explains her life of going to fancy parties and bougie brunches with her “beautiful” friends, all of whom are married, leaving her feeling extra alone. She confesses that while “my friends say that I’m too picky, that no guy is good enough…. the truth is nobody picks me.” Rachel assures her she’s going to make it happen for her; Serena exits the bathroom, spirits lifted, ready to get started.

And so we reach the first round of cuts, where half of the men will move on to the rest of the show. (There’s also a new, cloying product placement element thrown in, courtesy of the ever-hacky Chet.) Serena’s choices are all expected, until she surprisingly cuts Norman, who scuttles away in a huff. (He only lasted one episode, but give this to Norman: He had a heck of a reality show experience.) Serena explains, “I cut Norman because he’s never going to be my husband,” a decision she appears content with — the kind of choice she needed to make to comfortably move on. It’s something Quinn and the Everlasting team aren’t exactly pleased about, but given the amount of drama provided in one episode alone, they appear willing to forgive it.

This is UnREAL, of course, so it’s no surprise that we ends things on a little cliffhanger. Earlier in the episode, Madison got through an awkward conversation with Quinn, asking for her respect and saying, “I don’t want you to think I am just my p—y.” But she’s not making the best case for herself, given where we find her in the episode’s final minute: still sleeping with Gary, and trashing Quinn with a clear eye on her job. “I don’t think she’s got it anymore,” she says, devilishly.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it won’t be easy to cast Quinn aside. We watch Quinn go over some of Serena’s diary entry material, and she gets fixed on one thing her newest Everlasting suitor says: “I’m really good at my job and I don’t want to apologize for that.” Quinn requests that the line be slotted into the episode, and she smiles. She knows she’s good, and she won’t apologize for it — or back down.

Episode Recaps

The Lifetime drama — created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and featuring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer — explores the dark behind-the-scenes nature of a reality dating show (which is very clearly based on 'The Bachelor').
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