This post contains details about the second season of Lifetime’s “UnReal.”
“UnReal,” Lifetime’s hit drama about a “Bachelor”-esque dating show, needs a reality check.
The show’s second season started on a promising note when its fictional reality show “Everlasting” did something “The Bachelor” has not managed to do in 20 seasons: name a black suitor. Fans and critics alike have been excited about that development — and how it might add to the smart, subtle commentary the show delivered in its first season.
But the buzz around “UnReal” has taken a negative turn following an ill-conceived story line that placed its suitor — a professional quarterback named Darius Hill — at the center of a police-involved shooting.
In last week’s episode, a disastrous date led Darius to escape the “Everlasting” set in the show’s on-set Bentley, accompanied by two very tipsy contestants and his cousin and longtime manager, Romeo. Earlier this season, Darius fired Romeo after he voiced concerns about the bad influence of “Everlasting” producers, and Romeo hadn’t been seen for several episodes.
But Romeo was brought back last week in time to join Darius’s off-script joyride, which ended in a disastrous fashion when “Everlasting” producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby), called the cops to report the Bentley stolen.
It was easy to predict how the scene would end. Darius, who has secretly nursed a serious back injury during his time on “Everlasting,” was violently shoved against the car and handcuffed, as “Everlasting’s” producers covertly filmed the confrontation. When Rachel ran toward the officers to reveal that they were shooting a reality show, a startled police officer shot Romeo.
The scene came off as a hastily constructed attempt to incorporate the national discussion about the shootings of unarmed black men. “UnReal” isn’t the first television show to devote story lines to this issue, but its effort felt botched, especially in light of what happened after the shooting: Instead of focusing on Romeo and Darius, the story revolved almost entirely around Rachel and her resulting mental breakdown.
That story line continued into this week’s episode, during which we learned that Romeo was “fine,” but never saw him. Darius emerged, having had the back surgery he had long been putting off, and met up with Ruby, an activist and former “Everlasting” contestant whom Darius eliminated — despite having actual feelings for her — because he felt he would never be good enough to be with her. Having Darius run straight to Ruby after his ordeal with the cops felt ham-handed (she sat across from him in a “no justice, no peace” T-shirt) and too obvious a move, without any real contribution to the discussion of racial injustice. By the end of the episode, Darius had seemingly forgotten all about her and was convinced to return to the set of “Everlasting,” in the interest of his post-football career.
Rachel, who has a history of mental illness and ended up in a mental hospital after the incident, was brought back to the “Everlasting” set by Coleman, her boyfriend and the producer in charge of “Everlasting” at the time of the shooting. Coleman was the one who questioned Rachel’s decision to call the police in the first place (“On two black guys in a Bentley in this town? That won’t end well”), but ultimately went along with Rachel’s plan.
Coleman had been stripped of his executive producer title and duties after the shooting, which we are supposed to believe has not yet made its way to the press even after a week. This week’s episode confirmed one rumor circulating among “UnREAL” fan circles: One contestant, Yael, is secretly a reporter, and she formed an alliance with Coleman to get information for a story called “Reality TV Kills.” (“My editor says if I win this thing, this piece will be unstoppable.”)
This led Coleman to “produce” Rachel in the way that she has pried information from many an “Everlasting” contestant. Still drugged out from her time in the mental hospital, Rachel drowsily confessed some of the show’s darkest exploits, including one contestant’s suicide last season. Romeo’s shooting ended up being just a footnote to a long list of the morally questionable actions of “Everlasting’s” producers — one that both Rachel and her boss Quinn wrote off as not being a clear-cut case of racially motivated police violence. Later, as Rachel’s mother tried to convince her to return to treatment, Rachel told Coleman that she had been raped as a child by one of her mother’s patients. The harrowing revelation gives some context to Rachel’s mental health issues, but it, too, felt lost in an episode that didn’t quite know what (or whose) story it wanted to tell.
“UnReal” won a Peabody Award for its treatment of power, privilege, mental illness and other issues. At its best, the series shows us what it’s like to walk the line between the exploitative tactics of reality television and the desire to tell a compelling, meaningful story. (That’s what makes the 20-minute short that inspired the show so mesmerizing.) But this latest arc, if you can call it that, appears to lose its awareness of that dichotomy, and falls victim to the same temptation to exploit its subjects that plagues its show-within-a-show.
One line, spoken by Jay, in last week’s episode still feels particularly resonant: “This isn’t your story to tell,” he told Rachel as she was going over footage of the shooting. It’s a message that Rachel needed to hear, as her quest for good television often clouds her judgment. That’s an “Everlasting” problem, but it shouldn’t be “UnReal’s.”