By drift partner.
I’ve already sung unREAL’s praises here, and if it continues to be so beautifully on point, I’ll continue to do so for hopefully a long time (it’s already been renewed for its third season). Last night was the premiere of season 2, and already it’s proving itself to be one of the best, smartest shows on television. Here are five reasons why.
5. We are already seeing parallels between characters’ arcs.
unREAL season 1 was the story of Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) molding Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) into a true TV producer, a smaller, more neurotic version of herself. We see Rachel pushed to the breaking point multiple times, and we see Quinn constantly trying to push her further, while never quite letting her break. It’s a fascinatingly toxic relationship, and this season it has come full circle, with Rachel as the showrunner for season two of Everlasting and Quinn as her supporting producer. No longer is Rachel the sympathetic good cop to Quinn’s bad cop – now it’s bad cop and worse cop.
In season 1, Madison (Genevieve Buechner) was a fairly minor character, a production assistant who mostly existed for Quinn to yell at while she looked like a startled rabbit – until it was revealed that she was having sex with Quinn’s boyfriend Chet, the show’s creator and, technically, her boss. Madison was a pretty one-note character, but towards the end of the season she grew a bit of a backbone, eventually being promoted to producer for season 2 of Everlasting. In 2×01 we see her adjusting to her new role, somewhat poorly. Rachel becomes frustrated with Madison’s lack of knowledge while interviewing one of the Everlasting girls and ends up coaching her through an introductory interview with one contestant, whose fiance apparently died in a car accident that she may or may not have been responsible for. Rachel barks orders into Madison’s mic, ordering her to coax the girl into an emotional confession, and Madison ends up breaking down about her own mother’s recent death and running away to throw up. But when she recovers, she’s smiling. “That was….amazing!” she says. In 2×02, she begs Rachel to mentor her, saying “You’re Quinn now, let me be Rachel.” And so, the cycle continues. We’ll see where those parallel arcs go this season.
4. These are honestly really, really terrible people.
unREAL’s never been shy about reminding you that the people you’re watching are awful, heartless bastards, but in this episode it’s taken up to eleven. Of course, there’s the aforementioned scene with the contestant’s story and Madison’s breakdown – Rachel says to her, “C’mon, tell her your mom died or something. Get her to open up.” “My mom did die,” Madison says, lip wobbling. “Great! There you go,” encourages Rachel. “Play that up.” And before that, Rachel pushed one of her producers, Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), to try to convince one of the girls who had dropped out to return. That girl, Ruby (Denée Benton), is a Black Lives Matter activist and very focused on her impending college graduation. “Turns out I have a line,” Jay says, “and that line is keeping a black woman from her education.” So Rachel goes to talk to the girl herself. Why is she so determined to have this girl? Because they have also hired a girl who posted a picture of herself in a Confederate flag bikini on Instagram and got thousands of likes. Rachel smells drama like a shark smells blood in the water.
And speaking of Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), in 2×02 Rachel convinces her to wear the bikini for the reveal of the very black suitor, Darius Beck (BJ Britt). The other girls are horrified, and when Darius steps out for the reveal, Beth Ann flees in shame. Apparently her Alabama family loves Darius, who is a football star, and she seems to know that wearing the Confederate flag in front of a black man is, just maybe, inappropriate. Rachel convinces her to go back out and apologize to him, and she does – whipping the top off in front of the cameras. Darius responds like a gentleman, taking off his own shirt and giving it to her, while Rachel practically bounces with glee as they get priceless footage. This is only the beginning, we can presume, of her manipulating and puppet-mastering these girls.
3. Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby are acting their asses off.
I had only known Constance from her brief role on SHIELD, and I had never known Shiri before, but now I have serious doubts that there are many other actresses giving more layered, nuanced performances on a currently airing show. Shiri’s face somehow manages to encompass both wounded puppy and hardass at once, flipping back and forth between them beautifully as needed. She is both likeable and hateable, sometimes within the space of a few seconds, and all the while you are unable to look away. She is perhaps one of the most realistically written characters I have ever seen, in terms of the choices she makes – and they are terrible choices. But they are choices that a real human being would make. In 2×02 we see she is hoarding prescription drugs, after last season when it’s implied she’s been suicidal before, and there’s a suspenseful beat where you’re not sure what she might do with them. Rachel is a fucked-up person, but that’s what makes her relatable, and Shiri’s performance is a big part of that.
If Shiri-as-Rachel is relatable, then Constance-as-Quinn is terrifying. This is the role Constance Zimmer was born to play. She is steel and iron, she is an unstoppable force. I’ve seen her compared to Walter White, and I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, but from what I know about Walter, this seems to be true, except that I think she would eat him for breakfast. In this first episode, her ex Chet (and the ex-showrunner) (Craig Bierko) returns from a sabbatical where he apparently became an MRA and decided that he needed to take back the show, his “kingdom,” from Quinn’s emasculating lady clutches. Quinn responds by giving him the most beautiful “bitch, please” face I have ever seen. (Constance makes the greatest “bitch, please” faces of any human alive, honestly.) 2×02 is then a battle between them for who can create the best version of the show, and it’s beautiful to watch because Quinn rules her set with the confidence and skill of a George R. R. Martin character. Constance has said that she has been on sets with showrunners who behave exactly like Quinn, but they were male, and that she loves playing a female character who’s so different from how we expect female characters to be. I want Quinn King to become the 2015/2016 version of Amy Dunne.
2. Season 2 is tackling TV’s anti-black racism.
The news that season 2 would feature BJ Britt as the first black suitor character (a milestone that the real life Bachelor hasn’t reached yet) broke back in January. So far, the show has brought up a PR scandal where Darius told a white reporter “Bitch, please”; featured the network executives as well as Quinn, Chet, and other show staffers expressing concern about the show being “too black” if there are too many black contestants or Daris is allowed to bring his three-person entourage; Quinn has bluntly stated that a black man kissing, touching, and implied to be having sex with white girls is ratings and social media gold; Ruby and Jay have had a candid conversation about how to balance her dignity with her desire to have her Black Lives Matter views showcased on national TV (and she has worn both a Black Lives Matter shirt and an I Can’t Breathe shirt on-air); and of course the aforementioned bikini kerfuffle did not go unnoticed by Ruby, who calls Darius a coward and nearly leaves the show because of it.
I am not black. I cannot authoritatively say whether or not they will handle these themes with the care and consideration they deserve. But I do think so far the show is doing a better job of addressing anti-blackness than most other shows on TV right now (black-ish and Empire, among a few others, not included). I hope it continues to do so.
1. The show is, and always has been, about highlighting and dismantling sexism in the TV industry.
Co-creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who used to be a freelance producer on The Bachelor, has been outspoken about how her experiences shaped the show, and how important she believes the relationships between women who work in sexist industries are. “When women destroy other women, they destroy themselves eventually. Because if you start being really harsh to other women, inevitably you will turn it around on yourself,” she explains in that article, and so she has written a show illustrating that. In last season, and even more so in this season, Quinn and Rachel have a twisted, codependent bond that means that they both need and hate each other, and they turn this around on the girls they are meant to shepherd throughout the show’s run. One example of this is when Yael, the Jewish blogger contestant, is nicknamed “Hot Rachel” by the crew for, well, looking like a hotter version of Rachel. “Oh my god,” says Quinn with a grin, looking between the two women, “she really is Hot Rachel.” Yael apologizes to Rachel for that nickname in episode two, and tries to get an in with her by appealing to their commonality as Jewish women. Rachel, in response to this, sets her up to for failure by telling her to stick close to Madison. Other examples of this, which reflect Shapiro’s real experiences on The Bachelor, include the producers labeling certain girls as “wifeys” – sweet-faced, pure-hearted girls who are the ones to take home to Mama, as Quinn explains. They are on the lookout for one or two of these, as well as for a “villain,” a drama queen who will cause trouble. A promo for the season featured Quinn and Rachel cutting up a clip of one girl who has a fairly innocuous soundbite into…well.
And on the other side of things, the show has no time for sexism from men either. When Chet returns, having revitalized his energy via a questionable “retreat” where he claims to have regained his sense of purpose as a man, he immediately apologizes to Quinn for “forcing” her to play the role of the man while he apparently acted as a spineless coward. Quinn calls this out for the bullshit that it is and he responds with an aggressive attempt to regain dominance by suggesting that they both produce versions of Everlasting and see which the network likes: his bro-friendly titfest that seems to be aiming for Spike TV, or Quinn’s manufactured romance formula that has delivered successful ratings for fifteen seasons. “May the best man win,” he says, to which she replies, “She usually does.” Rachel, meanwhile, is receiving her own share of sexism from the crew, who have noticed her recent turn towards becoming more Quinn-like. “Bitch,” they mutter about her, but she has her say in the form of firing one of the more aggressively uncooperative crew members and saying “Being a sexist manbaby on my set has consequences.”
I am, of course, concerned that unREAL may suddenly take a hard left into terribleness, as so many other good shows have. But so far, this season has left me more impressed than I’ve been with a new show since I started Brooklyn Nine-Nine two years ago. I can’t wait to see what brilliant, horrible shit this show throws at us next.