Sudden Death
Credit: Bettina Strauss/Hulu

Reasons to be skeptical about the fourth season of UnREAL, which launched Monday in its entirety on Hulu. The meta-soap has struggled to hit the high heights of season 1. It only just concluded a rather miserable third season, ending its run on original network Lifetime in April.

That season’s buzzless reception led Lifetime to sell off season 4. You worry sometimes that our chic-new-now streaming services operate as part-time dumping grounds, vacuuming up all available content. (Remember The Cloverfield Paradox? Me neither.) And season 4’s arrival is, turns out, an exit: This will be the final season of the show.

Good news: the fourth season is a bleak riot. There are a couple essential improvements, terrible-character banishments that should’ve happened years ago. Jeremy (Josh Kelly), emo-killer camera guy, is gone forever. Rachel (Shiri Appleby) never once mentions her awful parents.

But there’s also a brazen new spirit, a kitchen-sink sensibility. In earlier seasons, Rachel was a desperate striver, struggling to communicate complex sociopolitical Deep Thoughts via sex-idiot romance competition. The confusing joy of UnREAL was how consistently she failed. Draped in the most aspirational dialectic of feminist empowerment, she was also an embarrassment engine, coaching contestants to catastrophe. Weirdly, her failings also became UnREAL‘s failings: Attempts at relevance wavecrashing against empty dramatic shock tactics, misbegotten characters who failed to symbolize anything but boredom.

In season 4, Rachel returns to the set of Everlasting with new look and a new attitude: Blonde hair, Don’t care. Everlasting — and UnREAL itself — follows her lead. The show-within-a-show is having an All-Stars season. The returning contestants are brand-focused personalities — the kind of C-list personality that claws for slightly more fame the way the characters in The Descent struggled for sunlight.

Everlasting All-Stars is a pastiche of reality nonsense, pointless rules, strange competitions, a million-dollar prize. The competition begins with women crossing a fairy-tale bridge, while masked men decide whether to drop them into the moat. “This is the most sexist, misogynistic bulls— we have ever done, and I love it!” exults Quinn (Constance Zimmer).

The spectacle’s never been less believable. Back in season 1, UnREAL approximated a fascinating ground-gritty look at the making of reality TV. In season 4, we seem to be living in a retro-future Gotham version of showbiz. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s Jay finally gets to produce his passion project Invitation to Dance, an ambitious live-TV extravaganza that looks like it’s shot on the set of The Krusty the Klown Show.

But the mind games behind All-Stars are terrifying. Two of the returning contestants participated in one of UnREAL season 1’s most disturbing subplots. Back then, Maya (Natasha Wilson) had a brutal encounter with Roger (Tom Brittney), drunken, consent-free, “full-on fratboy date rape” in the direct language of one Everlasting producer.

They’re both back for All-Stars. Rachel dreams of a passionate showdown, a woman reclaiming her agency. But she also seems to be torturing poor Maya, pushing her into her rapist’s orbit. “I want Roger and Maya locked in a room together by episode 4!” Rachel demands in the premiere. She gets her wish, and the outcome of the Roger-Maya subplot represents UnREAL at its most exploitative and most clever, knife-twisting notions of empowerment and sisterhood, manifesting #MeToo justice with all the subtlety of a slasher-film sequel. I won’t spoil it, though it involves the phrase “girl-power rape revenge witch trial.” And, at one brilliantly dark-comic point, Roger rebrands, declaring of himself: “This is what a feminist looks like.”

That phrase was written on Rachel’s T-shirt way back in the UnREAL series premiere. It’s a long, sad journey from there to here, and the best thing about UnREAL‘s fourth season is how it fully embraces apocalyptic Trump-era cynicism even as it speedballs the show’s drama into soap opera excitement. Appleby was always so good at magnifying Rachel’s internal struggle. But season 4 Rachel is like the “Say My Name” iteration of Walter White, a bad self fully embraced. She’s using All-Stars as an old-fashioned casting couch, husband-hunting among three flavors of ideal-man contestants: hippie Australian, the bad-boy soccer icon, and even a Nice Doctor.

There’s also a new man behind-the-scenes, Tommy (Francois Arnaud), a producer who’s just as ambitious as Rachel. It’s hard to explain the Tommy-Rachel relationship. They’re kind of a will-they-won’t-they. Their flirty let’s-destroy-some-souls machinations resemble the plotting step-siblings in Cruel Intentions. “UnREAL season 4 is like a funnier Cruel Intentions,” have I sold you yet?

At eight episodes, this is the first season of a 2018 TV drama that feels like it’s precisely as long as it should be, no midseason aimlessness, a runaway-train kineticism from episode 5 onwards. Something in the basic structure still feels misshapen, at times. It seems like the only story UnREAL wants to tell about Quinn and Rachel is, like, They plot against each other and then forgive each other and then plot against each other. There’s a sensitive surprise-pregnancy plotline, but the sensitivity can’t quite obscure the fact that this is a surprise-pregnancy plotline, one of those late-stage subplots a show picks up from the Emergency Idea bin. And the wonderful Bowyer-Chapman still feels a bit wasted on a “cocaine bad!” subplot.

We’re still miles away from the majesty of season 1. There are real delights in this final season, though. Candy Coco (Natalie Hall) joins Everlasting All-Stars as a joke personality. She’s a single mom and a successful Florida stripper, potential star of a new docusoap called Stripper Queens. She’s also the sharpest operator that Everlasting‘s ever had, too smart to be interested in romantic-aspiration gloss, too savvy to fall for the producer’s tricks. I wish the show had gotten to Candy Coco sooner; she makes most of the contestants from season 2 and 3 look lobotomized by comparison.

I wish a lot of things about UnREAL, but I’m glad I stuck with it through the end. Season 4 goes far down its own rabbithole: At one point, Rachel and Tommy go to a bar full of Everlasting cosplayers, celebrating the series with drinking-game shenanigans, gleefully oblivious to the emotional horrors the contestants are living through. That moment feels a lot like 2018, like someone filled a Super Soaker with gasoline and sprayed it all on Rome Burning. And then, when you least expect it, UnREAL wraps on a tone of quiet hopefulness, with characters who long ago became self-parodies rediscovering the possibility of a soul. B+

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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