The characters on Lifetime’s Unreal are constantly debating what makes good drama. It’s the key to the show, a peek inside the sausage factory that spits out candy-coated facsimiles of all-American romance. And when it’s great, Unreal is to reality what The Larry Sanders Show is to talk. It methodically punctures the image its subjects manufacture — the affable celebrity, the dashing Prince Charming — while also creating an image of its own: the messy, venal, ridiculously compelling workplace. This is a high bar: What happens if the show falls short of its own standards? Halfway through its second season, last year’s critical dark horse is starting to answer that question.
Because this year, Unreal is overcrowded. Stories doomed from the outset play out side-by-side with stories that could be great, if only they had room to breathe. After a breakneck freshman run, the stress of fitting two full series into one — the drama of Everlasting and the drama that goes into generating it — is starting to show.
Producers Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) are to Unreal what the suitor and his “wifeys” are to their show-within-a-show, Everlasting. They’re the heroes, the villains, and the conflict all in one, and Unreal lives or dies on their simultaneous alliance, mentorship, rivalry, and romance. To this, Unreal has piled on a stable of subplots the size of Everlasting’s jewel-toned harem. Last year, the suitor and Rachel’s love interest were one and the same; this season splits the roles between Darius (B.J. Britt), an NFL quarterback and the first black suitor in either real or fake Bachelor history, and a new showrunner who appeals to Rachel’s Vassar-educated, feminist-tee-wearing side. That’s just the beginning: Chet (Craig Bierko), Everlasting’s creator and Quinn’s very recent ex, discovers his inner men’s rights activist and finds himself in custody battles for his newborn son and the show; a Black Lives Matter activist teams up with a disgruntled producer to game the system; and Rachel’s ex sticks around to … whine. Last night, Unreal introduced yet another behind-the-scenes figure, a media tycoon with an interest in his newly acquired network’s hit show. The fight for Everlasting is getting Five Kings–level convoluted.
Chet, in particular, veers way too close to camp for a show that wants to be the ice water thrown in the face of a Bachelor-drunk public. Expecting us to believe his T&A remake Everblasting would ever make it past the “Hey, I want to mess with the formula that’s made us all millionaires” stage of the pitch meeting turns the show into a live-action cartoon. And if Chet represents what we’d like to see less of (or hopefully none of, after he lands in jail for kidnapping his own child), Darius represents what he’s been squeezing out. Unreal’s always been at its most blistering when it comes to race; a producer’s flat declaration that the audience can’t see a black girl first because black girls can’t be wifeys was its very first icicle to the heart. So the news that Season 2 would feature a black suitor, announced months before even the premiere date itself, was met with near-universal excitement. And parts of Darius’s character bear that out: He’s a black quarterback, a position with a complicated history in the NFL, who goes on Everlasting to recover from a heavily racialized publicity scandal. But Unreal has largely dropped this angle in favor of a bland subplot about a playing injury Darius is determined to keep hidden long enough to secure a sportscasting gig. (His decision to send the activist home, albeit after an emotional conversation about her beliefs and his persona, felt like a nail in the thematic coffin.)
The real stars of the show, meanwhile, remain sharp as ever. Quinn and Rachel are now at each other’s throats once again, bringing out the worst in both of them. The more Rachel fights for control of a show she supposedly can’t stand, the more obvious her hypocrisy; the dirtier Quinn fights back, the more of a monster she becomes. And the deeper Unreal sinks into its twisted leads, the deeper it lays into the show at the center — the show, again, that’s based on one that so many of us watch each week. It’s no coincidence that the best scene of the season thus far has Rachel coaching a younger producer into using a contestant’s dead fiancé to break her down on camera. Everlasting has poisoned Rachel, and now she’s passing on the disease.
Heading into the back half of the season, there’s reason to believe Unreal can pull out of a textbook sophomore slump — just last year, the show threatened to jump the shark before it’d even found its footing, only for the finale to neatly stick the landing. The good news: The dark heart of Unreal is still beating. It’s just buried under some unnecessary frills. And just like Everlasting’s contestants, those can always be cut.