Lifetime

The Bachelor justifies itself—its retrograde premises, its gleeful misogynies, its blithe rejections of the moral underpinnings of “diversity”—by way of the same excuse that many similar shows proffer: ratings. Eight million viewers can’t be wrong, you know? And so, bolstered by the mandate conferred by so many weekly eyes and hearts and minds, the show cheerfully pits bikini-clad women against each other in the fight for one man’s affections. It operates so far outside the constraints of “reality” as most people experience it as to list, without irony, a guy’s professional occupation as “hipster” and a girl’s as “chicken enthusiast.” It creates situations that treat romance—obtained, in its universe, through hot tubs and Fantasy Suites and candle-lit Darwinian struggle—as something that is available only to the hot and the straight and the young.

Those are all reasons to mock The Bachelor (and, to an only slightly lesser extent, its sister show, The Bachelorette, which is currently at the start of its 12th season). The reason to resent The Bachelor, though—to treat viewership of the franchise not just as a guilty pleasure, but as participation in something that might be more actively pernicious—is the show’s terrible history with race. The franchise, in its 21 seasons, has never featured a Bachelor or Bachelorette of color. And the contestants of color who have participated in the show over the years, vying for a rose from the season’s appointed Hot Person, have generally not made it very far in the competition. “I’ve heard appalling things about race all the time,” Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer for The Bachelor, told Variety of her behind-the-scenes experiences of the show. It was an admission that, given the show’s weekly output, would come as a surprise to precisely nobody.

Shapiro is now an executive producer for UnREAL, the excellent dark comedy that acerbically—and, given Shapiro’s experience, expertly—satirizes The Bachelor. The scripted drama, which debuted as a sleeper hit last summer, begins its second season Monday evening on Lifetime. This time around, those “appalling things,” which spent the previous episodes simmering as a background affront, are the focus of UnREAL’s gimlet gaze. The show, about a Bachelor-style dating show called Everlasting, still uses fiction to skewer the genre that is audacious enough to call itself “reality”; now, though, the “reality” that comes in for questioning involves race.

UnREAL’s new season begins with Rachel (Shiri Appleby), Everlasting’s producer, and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), its creator, congratulating themselves: The two have cast a black man, Darius Hill (B.J. Britt), as the new season’s Suitor. (Darius is an NFL quarterback who, like Everlasting’s previous Suitor, the British playboy Adam, is in need of an image rehab—in this case, Darius insulted a female reporter on live TV with an unfortunately timed, “Bitch, please.”)

Rachel is convinced that this casting choice, which is otherwise the stuff of typical, transactional Hollywood image management, will somehow compensate for Everlasting’s 14 seasons’ worth of failed “reality”—and maybe, too, perhaps, for the many, many moral compromises Rachel, and her show, made during UnREAL’s previous season. She is, because of all that, exceedingly proud of herself. “It was me!” Rachel yells, early in season two. “The first black Suitor, it was me! We’re gonna make history!”

Arrogance about progress about a fiction about a fantasy about reality: It’s a fittingly complicated premise for a show that is, in its many layers, a delicious pop-cultural parfait. UnREAL’s first season, which pitted Rachel’s feminism against her job and her self-interest, questioned the extent to which ends can justify means: Rachel compromised and compromised until finally she could compromise no more. Trolly problems became train wrecks. Rachel said she wanted to “cure AIDS babies,” aware but not aware enough of how glib that aspiration was; instead, though, she ended up making a TV show that sold out her fellow women, cat fight by cat fight and villain edit by villain edit. Television is tentacular, UnREAL suggested, to the extent that a producer’s failings become a show’s failings—which become its audience’s. And all of ours.

The new season of UnREAL (at least the first two episodes of it, the ones that were made available to critics) expands on those ideas of compromise and complicity. Now, though, something has shifted: Rachel, instead of hoping to leave Everlasting to make the world a better place, wants to use the show itself to do that world-bettering. This time around, her defining cynicism has been replaced by something resembling wild-eyed optimism. (“I’m not manic, I’m changing the world!” Rachel informs Everlasting’s on-set therapist, with no apparent irony.) It’s a loaded transformation: Rachel, who spent UnREAL’s first season doing the wrong thing and then feeling bad-but-probably-not-bad-enough about it, has shed that pesky ambivalence: She is now supremely confident that she is doing the right thing. Everlasting, she has convinced herself, is a platform for making the world a better place. And she’s going to use it. We’re gonna make history.

What’s especially compelling about that premise is that Rachel has a point: TV is a platform not just for entertainment, but for cultural argument—for good or for ill. That is precisely what makes The Bachelor’s failings so resonant. And it is precisely why UnREAL can have so much to say about the world beyond its screens: In talking about TV—consistently popular TV, no less—it is talking about all of us. It is questioning us and cajoling us and calling our collective bluffs. Eight million viewers can’t be wrong—or can they?

And now, UnREAL is doing all that when it comes to race. The show’s driving question is whether Rachel is equipped to use her platform for legitimate progress, to eke some good out of a show that is otherwise so flawed—or whether, indeed, “diversity” will be, for her, the new “AIDS babies.” Rachel, as part of her quest, recruits not just Darius, but also Ruby Carter (Denée Benton), a black civil-rights activist at Berkeley, to be one of the contestants vying for his rose and his heart. Ruby is smart; Rachel convinces her to participate with the promise that her presence on Everlasting will do more for Black Lives Matter and other civil-rights movements than any Twitter campaign ever could. The stakes of all of this are high, because TV’s stakes are high. Will Ruby and Rachel team up to make Everlasting a show that is about more than performative romance? Or will one betray the other? Will Ruby be ruined by reality TV, as so many before her have … or will she harness the power of “reality” to improve reality?

UnREAL’s early episodes leave those questions tantalizingly open, with characters, and its plots, that are elastic and complicated enough to accommodate many possibilities. But the new season’s early episodes suggest future ones that will have compelling things to say—about the collision of politics and media and race, about intersectional feminism, about good intentions gone awry, about television’s complicity in the white-savior industrial complex. As Rachel says at one point, gleeful and giddy and full of newfound moral purpose, “I feel like God.” It’s a line that should strike fear in the hearts of UnREAL’s characters and viewers: As the first season of UnREAL made clear, God is a role for which Rachel, in TV as in everything else, is hopelessly miscast.  

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