The second season of UnREAL, Lifetime's fictional drama about the making of a reality dating show, was a mixed bag. The performances were as strong as ever: Constance Zimmer, who plays monstrous producer Quinn, and Shiri Appleby, as her second-in-command Rachel, were riveting every moment they appeared on screen. But the plot unraveled quickly, trying to tackle too many societal issues without any firm resolution.
...And then the season finale ended with one perfectly genius shot that reminded us why this show is so excellent, and brilliantly set up the dynamic for next season.
Spoilers for UnREAL's second season finale beyond this point.
Back at the beginning of July, TVGuide.com called Lifetime's UnREAL the best TV show of 2016, so far. The idea was to look at the first six months of the year, and use July 1 as the cut-off point. At that point, UnREAL had only aired five of the ten episodes in its second season, and it was as sharp and witty as Season 1.
Then things went a little off the rails. The show introduced too many new characters and plot wrinkles, from an undercover reporter trying to expose the underbelly of reality dating show Everlasting; to an alarmingly surface-y treatment of both domestic abuse and racial profiling. Part of the problem was that UnREAL was delving too far into being a soap opera, versus using the tropes of a soap to explore deeper characterizations of women in media.
Look: I caught the last ten minutes of Devious Maids before watching the UnREAL season finale, and the latter show is nowhere near that level of (purposefully) goofy, over the top soapiness. UnREAL is still anchored by great performances and nuanced writing, from Appleby and Zimmer all the way to supporting players Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman as conflicted producer Jay, and Genevieve Buechner as stealthily crafty producer-in-training Madison.
But the finale was uneven, at best. Last year's blowout tied Rachel into the central conflict: she was (and is) in love with the Suitor at the center of last season's Everlasting, played by Freddie Stroma. This year, the finale had to juggle Quinn's jealousy of her ex-lover's burgeoning relationship; a rogue reporter trying to expose the show; a Suitor forced to marry one of two ladies he wasn't in love with; and the unfortunate return of Jeremy (Josh Kelly), the man who beat Rachel up earlier in the season.
It's that last bit which was most alarming. Jeremy has always had a complex relationship with Rachel. Before UnREAL began, we've been told that the two were in love up until Rachel had a total breakdown on set. After she returned to Everlasting, Rachel and Jeremy took up again, destroying his new, more stable relationship. And then she dumped him. He became increasingly erratic and bearded in Season 2, leading up to him attacking Rachel in a production trailer. Though Rachel decided not to press charges, Jeremy was kicked off of the show.
In the finale, he pops up again, recruited by Rachel's ex-boyfriend, ex-showrunner Coleman (Michael Rady) to help blow the roof off all the illegal doings behind the scenes of Everlasting. That is, up until Jeremy finds out Rachel was raped by one of her mother's therapy patients when she was 12 — and he immediately "gets" why she's so damaged.
He tells her he'd do anything for her, so when Coleman and the reporter end up driving away from set, headed to CNN to expose Everlasting, Jeremy runs them off the road and kills them. The season ends with Rachel, Jeremy, show creator/Quinn's ex Chet (Craig Bierko) and Quinn all lying on lounge chairs, uneasily and silently sizing each other up.
I don't want to ignore how we got to that shot. Jeremy, as an abuser, is a character that should have never been brought back into the fold. There's a line there, beyond all the horrible s--t Quinn and Rachel do, that his character crossed. And in Season 3, they'll have to deal with the reductive way both Jeremy and the script are treating Rachel's childhood abuse.
But on a pure craft level, it was a genius bit of parallel storytelling.
Season 1 ended with a conversation between Quinn and Rachel, as they lay on lounge chairs, ostensibly celebrating the end of another season of Everlasting, but in reality dealing with the emotional weight of the lives they destroyed. As they lay there, Rachel turns to Quinn to tell her how next year needs to be different.
"Just no murder next season," Rachel says. "At least not with the contestants. ... Behind the scenes, I can't be so sure."
This transitions into her telling Quinn that Jeremy probably wants her dead. And as they lay there on the chaise lounges, Jeremy goes to Rachel's mother's house to try and help "fix" Rachel.
None of this comes up in dialogue in the second season finale, but it's all there on screen. Once again, all Jeremy wants to do is fix Rachel, to make her "better." And here, he's fulfilled Rachel's murder prophecy in the most horrible, self-serving way possible.
The big difference between the two endings? In Season 1, Rachel — conflicted — tells Quinn she loves her; and though Quinn consistently destroys Rachel's life on a daily basis, Rachel means it. They're in this together. In Season 2, we get a physical representation of all the problems of the season, as Rachel and Quinn are separated by the two men in their lives, Chet and Jeremy.
That's UnREAL's mission for Season 3: to figure out a way to break through the unnecessary man barrier that's separating Quinn and Rachel. The show is strongest when it's throwing the two of them together and breaking them apart; not when it's dealing with "man issues," or societal issues.
Clearly, they're going to have to deal with the fallout from Jeremy, you know, killing two people... But the attention to detail and structure of that last shot shows UnREAL can still be as smart and as powerful as anything on TV. So in Season 3, here's hoping we get back to the core of the show: Quinn and Rachel.