We all went a little crazy in 2016, and UnREAL was no different.
Lifetime’s reality TV satire-soap blasted into its second season with Solve Everything ambitions. Physical abuse, sexual assault, police shooting an unarmed black man, the proverbial Confederate-flag bikini: It was provocative material, with a chaotic execution. Long-suffering producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and her boss/confessor/personal devil Quinn (Constance Zimmer) spent the year at odds, buried in tired romantic subplots. Showrunners shifted on the series’ fictional Bachelor knockoff Everlasting, reflecting UnREAL‘s real-life showrunner-swapping drama. It was a fascinating season that was never quite entertaining, and built up to a final twist requiring at least one main character to commit double vehicular homicide.
But at the onset of season 3 (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime), UnREAL wants you to know that it’s changed. “How about we start with something simple, like nobody dies?” says Christopher Cousins’ network president, taking the words right out of my mouth. The first two episodes of the season are a clever reset, reuniting Rachel and Quinn just in time to gender-swap Everlasting‘s central premise.
This year the Suitor is a Suitress, a lawsuit-proof euphemism for “Bachelorette.” Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald) is “the female Elon Musk,” a tech titan with everything except someone to share everything with. It’s a leap to imagine a perfectionist venture capitalist on a dating show. (In our world, Silicon Valley titans prefer the media they control.) But FitzGerald is an exciting new presence, all blazing confidence collapsing into quiet desperation. “You are smart, pretty, and successful,” Rachel tells Serena. “Half of America already hates you!”
It’s a funny line, bleak but accurate. Even at its worst, UnREAL has its finger on the jangly pulse of modern mediated life. “Like it or not,” Rachel says, “reality TV shapes our world.” That’s never been more true, and there’s an intoxicating downward spiral in this season’s design. Rachel’s dedicated herself to a culty spiritualist healing practice that forbids lying and sex. And then she returns to Everlasting—a dystopia built on both sins!—because she wants to shape the world in Serena’s empowered image. Quinn’s the ideal partner/nemesis for Rachel. She dismisses “all this pink-hat female-empowerment crap,” and just needs this damn thing to be entertaining.
Those two instincts are UnREAL‘s twin mission statements: Rachel and Quinn, sincere Big Idea-striving and brute-force sexy fun. The new flock of contestants are comedic extremes of masculinity: activist hunk, social-media star, fancy English guy, a jockey hired by Quinn for a shameless height gag. There’s a feeling of playful mojo recovered, though I worry that none of the contestants are halfway as interesting as Serena herself. She forms an immediate connection with a nice-guy firefighter single dad (Alex Hernandez), the kind of blandly likable personality UnREAL used to mercilessly deconstruct.
And I really worry about poor Jeremy (Josh Kelly), Rachel’s double-ex double murderer. His mere presence represents all season 2’s worst instincts and makes you nervous that the reset button wasn’t hit hard enough. “It’s gonna be a great season!” Quinn tells her staff, filming the premiere-within-the-premiere. Then she whispers to herself: “Oh God, please let us have a great season.”
UnREAL‘s still in the oh God please phase of its own reboot, but these new episodes are encouraging. Everyone is back where they belong: ruining one another’s lives, turning reality itself into a lie, and having a little fun while they do it. B+