There are several potential reasons for why this might be, chief among them, very possibly, the departure of UnREAL’s co-creator, Marti Noxon, a TV veteran who was responsible for much of the show’s writing in season one. But there could be another problem, too. The show may have simply fallen victim to its own status as a show-within-a-show, and as a series that is both a satire of TV and TV itself. UnREAL has, from the beginning, emphasized the irony inherent in its premise. Its fictions have doubled as commentaries about the world beyond UnREAL’s hazy borders—about gender, about class, about Hollywood, about a genre of entertainment that claims the mantle of “reality.” The show has featured stories that have been animated by the ideas that are simmering in the cultures beyond its very hazy borders. That is what has made the show so layered and, in its way, literary.
But now? Rather than the first season’s premise of commentary in the service of art, UnREAL has been largely serving up the opposite: art in the service of commentary. Thus: plot points about Black Lives Matter. Plot points about political activism. Plot points about the power of TV to change, or not to change at all, the way people think. Plot points that now involve police shootings. Rachel, and her boss-cum-frenemy Quinn, have together determined to “make history” by doing what The Bachelor, in the world that parallels UnREAL’s, has thus far not accomplished: selecting a person of color as its star. Quinn, distracted by a new boyfriend, seems to have forgotten that goal; Rachel, however—though she is in her own way distracted by her new boyfriend—has not.
This could be great fodder for great televised fictions. These ideas could be wrapped up subtly and satisfyingly into UnREAL’s stories. Instead, UnREAL serves up preachy dialogue like this, between Adam—last season’s Everlasting suitor, and one of the two (two!) of Rachel’s ex-boyfriends who appeared, jarringly, in the episode—and Rachel:
Adam: Why are you still here, with Quinn, in this place? Wake up! This place is a vortex of evil and dysfunction, turning everything it touches to shit. How do you not see that? It’s ruining your life.
Rachel: And what, you’re some, like, moral authority now? You, like, kiss a few AIDS babies for some photo op, and you think you’re doing God’s work? I’m actually helping people.
Adam: Tell me, who do you think you’re actually helping here?
Rachel: Um, the 16 million people who watch my television show every week. Okay? I have single-handedly broken down all these pre-conceived notions on love and race. Because Coleman and I? We are making television that matters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but we actually have the first black suitor. That’s groundbreaking.
Adam: Your black suitor is on a fake date, on a fake boat, on a fake lake. That is Everlasting, and you’re completely delusional.
This is … on the nose. It is in-your-face. It is very, very camel-y. And it is also a repetition of similar conversations that have been had between Rachel and many other characters since the first episode of UnREAL’s new season. For a series of episodes that have featured so much sex and betrayal and violence and twists of fate, very little has actually changed. The broad arc of Rachel’s story—despite all the nonsensical dramas that have ensued since that episode—hasn’t moved forward; what has changed are the ideas—about wokeness, about allies, about police brutality—that underscore that story. They are the stars here.