As a salacious drama that attempts to satirize another salacious drama, Unreal walks a very high wire. But in its second season, which wraps tonight, the show didn’t just trip off that wire: It took a swan dive, did some Tom Daley–worthy backflips on the way down, and landed in a splatter of nonsense plot twists, underbaked characters, and racial insensitivity. At its halfway point, Lifetime’s Bachelor roast was already fraying at the seams. Since then, it’s come undone.
The good news is that Lifetime renewed the show for a third season before its magical carriage ride to critical acclaim turned back into a pumpkin. And there’s plenty of precedent for TV shows pulling out of second-season nosedives. (Remember the murder the Friday Night Lights writers magicked away?) That means cocreator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a real-life Bachelor alum now flying solo after a messy-sounding split from industry vet Marti Noxon, has a real chance to do some damage control — and maybe, just maybe, get back to deconstructing emotional torture porn instead of just being it.
To that end, here’s our easy, four-step plan to getting Unreal back on track. Some are longer shots than others, but this is Unreal we’re talking about; there’s no shark too big to jump, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Step 1: All Men Must Die
Or at least get written off, and posthaste. Perhaps the juiciest revelation from Shapiro’s New Yorker profile was that she didn’t particularly want protagonist Rachel’s (Shiri Appleby) ex, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), to stick around, but Lifetime made her keep him. (“All I can say is we employ a veteran” will go down in history as some of the best shade a 38-year-old white woman has ever thrown.) And boy, did it show: The most significant thing Jeremy did all season was throw a punch, a move that made his continued presence on the show only more improbable.
Jeremy may be the worst of Unreal’s dudes, but he’s far from the only one. A brief roll call: Romeo, the suitor’s cousin/manager who exists only to get shot; John, the dashing billionaire who exists only to give a protagonist baby fever; Adam, the ex-suitor whose hasty return was clumsily executed and delivered minimal impact; Coleman, the love interest whose liberal piety is as tiresome as it is self-serving; and Chet, the sudden men’s rights activist on a season-long redemption arc. Exhausted? Us, too.
All this, despite the fact that the show’s premise requires but one Y chromosome in a sea of ladies. It’s time to clear the chessboard and get back to the estrogen fumes this show runs on. (As Everlasting’s sole source of empathy and reason, producer Jay can stay. ❤ you, Jay.)
Step 2: Bring in the Dancing Guest Stars
Unreal’s greatest weakness is that it plows through an entire series’ worth of plot in one season. But Unreal’s greatest potential strength is that “a series’ worth of plot in one season” is the dictionary definition of the prestige-iest TV format of all: the anthology series. While Unreal can’t and shouldn’t go full Murphy, it should take full advantage of its almost-format’s built-in advantages: the ability to pull off open-and-shut arcs and, far more importantly, massive cast turnover. That’s a lot of empty slots to have some fun with, and a nice, low time commitment for actors to take advantage of, McConaughey-style. Let’s speculate!
Contestant side: The contestant role is a tradeoff. On the one hand, it’s generally less developed and more disposable than that of the suitor, a habit Unreal has unfortunately inherited from its inspiration, particularly this season. On the other, less screen time means less of a commitment, and potentially more star power, from a would-be guest.
One route: real-life Bachelor alumni. After all, what greater victory could Shapiro have over her former workplace than bringing more defectors around to her take on things, especially if they already know how to play faux-romance? Another option: Unreal’s more famous IRL fans, who already fit the all-American attractiveness standard required of Everlasting contenders. Thank God for Us Weekly, which let us know that Lea Michele and Emma Roberts are regular viewers.
Suitor side: The meta possibilities here are endless. The role of the suitor, after all, is all about celebrities mediating their image, typically in the wake of a PR crisis: a British noble needs to recover from a sex scandal; a black football player kinda-but-not-really called a white reporter a bitch. There’s all kinds of fun to be had in reading a similar kind of reputation management into the actor behind the suitor as well.
So let’s brainstorm: Who’s been having a tough time lately and could use a guest stint on a high-profile feminist drama? Maybe a notorious weirdo who just murdered his goodwill and sent the corpse to his castmates for a minimal amount of screen time in the misogynist megahit of the year? You tell me.
Step 3: Make the Subtext Text
Power producers Quinn and Rachel have been all things at all times to each other; they’re in a classic codependent-colleague relationship, the kind that forms when two people have methodically excised everything from their life that isn’t work. But when it comes to Unreal’s central relationship, the very thing obscured by all those extraneous man-babies, there’s at least one stone left unturned.
Boss-subordinate, mentor-protégé, mother-daughter, friends, enemies: Quinn and Rachel cycle between them all, sometimes within a single scene. There’s an obvious omission from that list, though. And it’s one that would satisfy the fan base, cut out the need for even more male characters with limited shelf lives, and add an extra dimension to their repeated declarations of how much they care about each other deep down.
So why not couple them up? It’s practically the only line Unreal hasn’t done a wheelie over. Let’s give RaQuinn a shot.
Step 4: It’s Hard Reboot Time
A season and a half is awfully early for a show to run into the BoJack Problem, and yet here we are. Unreal is about a self-destructive person who’s addicted to toxic mind games in spite of herself, and that toxicity has started to spill over into the show. Everlasting is bad for Rachel, but Rachel keeps going back to Everlasting, and to the version of herself that does awful, awful things to its contestants. We get it, and watching Rachel continue to pull some bullshit no longer gives the character depth — it just proves she’s willing and able to pull some bullshit. Which we already knew.
So what if Unreal … ditched the Real? Or at least the particular version of it that’s making everybody miserable, including us. Everlasting is a corrupt, corrupting, petty, misogynist, exploitative, racist, and manipulative black hole — so why don’t our heroines just warp-speed on outta there? Quinn and Rachel toyed with the idea in the last season finale before deciding, in Unreal’s final flash of self-awareness, that no one wants to watch a show about “women with jobs.” Time to pull that trigger.
The only constant this show really needs is its two leads being terrifyingly good at their jobs. What if they put those skills to good use, or better yet, had to adjust them to a workplace where sexual humiliation and blackmail aren’t standard practice? What if wrangling kids on a MasterChef Junior–type show helped cure Quinn of her maternal instinct? What if a RuPaul’s Drag Race analog let Rachel try, and probably fail, to live out her progressive ideals? What if Rachel and Quinn met an on-camera personality who could actually push back, or traveled the world, or they got both in some sort of Anthony Bourdain situation? The possibilities are endless — unlike Everlasting, which exhausted its possibilities long ago.