Is there hope for UnReal?
I was optimistic when UnREAL premiered back in February. Season 2 was shaky, and forever ago, and contained a couple instances of High Sharkjumpery. But a TV series that doesn’t try jumping a couple sharks by season 3 probably isn’t taking enough risks. And February’s premiere promised a clever reset. There was the gender-swappage of the central premise, with Caitlin FitzGerald’s Suitress as the new star of the show-within-a-show. And the main characters all promised to never talk about that whole double murder thing.
And you could still feel that old special energy every time Constance Zimmer’s Quinn and Shiri Appleby’s Rachel shared the screen. I’ve never quite seen a relationship like this on a TV show. Quinn is Rachel’s mentor, but also her constant tempter, like if Obi-Wan Kenobi was also the Emperor. Rachel is the hopeful optimist with big ideas contrasting Quinn’s blunt cynicism. But the younger producer’s true passion — her belief that reality TV can do some good in this world — always leads to to the show’s worst consequences. There are times when Rachel seems like a mad zealot, anchored to fragile reality only by Quinn’s noir-heroine dark humor. And there are times when Quinn seems like an amoral monster, anchored to fragile reality only by Rachel’s sincere friendship. They are both great at a job that is fundamentally inhuman, which makes them both aspirational and demonic, like hotshot bankers in 2008 or hotshot social media entrepreneurs in 2018 or oil executives forever.
My fellow critic Kristen Baldwin sums them up, brilliantly, as “badass b–ches making sexist reality tv while trying to maintain their own identities as humans/women.” That used to be the whole mission statement of UnREAL, and that fundamental structure makes the show interesting even when it’s terrible. We know this, unfortunately, because season 3 was often terrible. The middle section of the season banished Rachel to an endless, never-convincing subplot rooted in childhood trauma and shadowy family dynamics. Quinn fared no better. Season 3 entrapped her in an elaborate, vaguely parliamentary, consistently uninvolving chess game with Gary (Christopher Cousins), the head of the Vibrant Cable Network, which airs Everlasting. Cousins played a brilliant sludge, and you felt that the show was aiming to dramatize a potent idea about the patriarchy.
But the execution here was all akimbo, a series of speeches and standoffs at society functions, corporate warfare with all the authenticity of the CW’s Dynasty reboot. At one point, Quinn saved her job because Gary couldn’t finish his speech about firing her. (At the same point, she almost lost her job because she didn’t make a back-up copy of incriminating files, a shocking twist that just made her look dumb.) At one point, the wonderful Tracie Thoms joined the cast as Quinn’s friend, Fiona. Here were her plot points:
- Be Quinn’s friend.
- Sell her VR company to a Chinese firm.
- Find out the Chinese firm didn’t want to buy her VR company.
- Betray Quinn and become the vice-president of the Vibrant Cable Network.
- Become Quinn’s friend again.
- Become the head of the Vibrant Cable Network.
It was all whiplash, all the time. Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) descended out of a steady relationship into a coke-binge love affair with an insane Russian dancer, and then ascended out of it just in time to criticize Rachel for her poor life choices. Chet (Craig Bierko) cycled through motivations: He wanted an Emmy, he wanted to spend more time with his kid, he was in love with Quinn again, he got stoned and decided to stab Quinn in the back. Poor Jeremy (Josh Kelly) kept talking about that whole double murder thing.
All this time misspent with the production staff meant the new Everlasting contestants were half-formed cartoons: Hippie Activist, British Cad, Social Media Star, Fireman Single Dad. The one fascinating character on Everlasting this season was the chef played by Terry Chen. He wanted to build up his fame and fortune; he didn’t mind if that meant pretending to be in love with his male roommate. “I want to be bi!” was his only petulant demand, and Chen made the line reading so bleakly funny that you wanted a whole dark spinoff series about a straight chef peddling his LGBT food-and-lifestyle brand, with a prime location on the Vegas Strip, “none of this downtown resurgence crap.”
UnREAL needed more of that spirit, the feeling that each character has a private goal underpinning their public narrative. The worst foundational idea season 3 had was making Serena the first True Believer in Everlasting‘s mission. She really thought the best way to find her soulmate was to go on a reality show full of narcissistic sex idiots surrounded by leering cameras controlled by whiskey-swilling nihilists. Despite consistent demonstrations of her intelligence, this all-encompassing character arc made Serena vastly more naive than Suitors past. Also not helping matters: the sudden revelation that Serena’s ex-boyfriend had a restraining order against her, a radical twist that was basically brought up and disposed of in a matter of minutes. Also: Serena saved a cute little girl from being killed in a car crash.
This was not a successful season of UnREAL in any way. Ratings, never huge, were low. Overall conversation never came close to the sky-high acclaim of season 1, or, for that matter, the fascinating sky-low chaos of season 2. Meanwhile, the characters were grasping for resonance, declaring their relevance as the show around them proved the opposite. “Can’t wait for Twitter to get ahold of that!” Quinn would say, a line Twitter never got ahold of. Everlasting‘s ratings were always getting higher and higher. Characters spoke with semiotic eloquence about how everything happening to Serena definitely symbolized something. “Healing a divided nation or the death of feminism, both very hot right now!” was something Fiona just said off the cuff. Chet’s quest for an Emmy felt like a very meta expression for UnREAL‘s own, ever-less-likely awards campaign. Here was a show where someone used the word “zeitgeist-y,” and then someone else used the word “zeitgeist-y.”
Rachel swore that Serena’s final act on Everlasting was being received as a feminist statement, and we caught sight of a couple of the day-after thinkpieces, on sites that looked like rather prestigious, Fake Vanity Fair and Fake Variety. I’m not sure season 3 will inspire half that many thinkpieces. Lifetime already greenlit a fourth season, which has started filming. Reportedly, it will only have eight episodes, a cutback that feels like an endgame.
It’s a bummer, if we’re near the end. Season 1 is an essential document for this decade, a scathing satire of reality TV that’s also a rich, thoughtful, provocative portrait of what our reality has become. It was bleak, and smart, and fun. Season 3 was just bleak. “No more patriarchal bulls–t!” said Fiona in the finale. “But matriarchal bulls–t is still cool, right?” responded Quinn. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: From the dream of a network run by capable women, we leave off with ever-ambitious Madison (Genevieve Buechner) treating Fiona with the same clothes-off business ethics that she used to treat her male superiors. Meanwhile, Rachel’s all alone in a cabin in the woods. And Serena’s all alone with her dating app. And Jeremy’s off to walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu, hopefully using his double-murder powers for good. And poor Quinn is all alone with Chet, a narrative regression 17 plot points backward which UnREAL ludicrously treats with all sincerity like a gauzy ending to a love story. (Also, erp, that nice therapist guy was a freaky stalker. When two characters in a single season develop a “Freaky Stalker” twist, things have trended downwards.)
Can the fourth season recover the lost mojo? I hold out hope. Next year will see Everlasting adopt an All-Stars format, which promises to reintroduce old characters, which if nothing else means UnREAL won’t have to introduce as many one-dimensional new characters. Also, it seems unthinkable that the show could treat an “All-Stars” season with Serena-ish sincerity. Any two-time participant in a romantic competition series is ambitious for something beyond the right reasons, and there’s a rich vein of reality stardom goofery that UnREAL could tap, the names half-remembered from trending topics eight years ago, the D-level celebrities grasping for C-level fame.
I’m ride-or-die for this show. Midway through the season, when there was nothing to obsess over, I became obsessed with all the bad weather. Nominally set in Northern California, the show looked unmistakeably Vancouver-y: constant rainstorms, big winter jackets, and the actors’ visible breath confirming the chilly climate. This made every exterior shot inadvertently hilarious; the Everlasting house, supposedly a sudsy-sunny dream of glossy hot-tubbery, looked like the Emily Bronte version of a McMansion. This was matched by UnREAL‘s depiction of show business, which trended ever more absurd. But please do tell me more about Fiona’s VR company, and please let Madison’s eternal, terrible-sounding passion project #Adulting get a 90-second fake promo next season.
And I love Zimmer, and I love Appleby, and I want to believe that there is a devastating, hilarious final act for Quinn and Rachel. Late in the finale, Quinn told her charge: “You are a dark, twisted wreck, Rachel Goldberg, and I am going to miss every bit of it.” UnREAL at its best was dark and twisted. In season 2, it was a fascinating wreck. Season 3 wasn’t much of anything. But I’ll be back for more. Quinn had it right. Matriarchal bulls–t is still cool.