UnREAL and the Dangers of Thinkpiece-Friendly TV

In its chaotic second season, the Lifetime satire feels like ideas in search of a story—not the other way around.


This post contains mild spoilers for the most recent episode of UnREAL.

Have you heard the joke about the camel? That the creature, with its awkward humps and gangly legs and unpleasant personality, is a horse that has been designed by committee?

I kept thinking about that while watching the most recent episode of UnREAL, Lifetime’s satire of The Bachelor, and of reality TV more broadly. “Ambush,” the seventh installment of UnREAL’s second season, featured, variously: the awkwardly explained return of two castaway characters; two romances that make little sense to begin with crashing forward at breakneck speeds; the cremated remains of an contestant’s ex-boyfriend serving as a prop in a reality show (in a fake Venetian gondola, in a fake California lake); and then, finally, a shooting of an unarmed black man at the hands of incompetent police.

Legs, humps, overbite: The whole thing was chaotic and frenzied and whiplashing, enough to transform a show that has thus far distinguished itself by blending the sharp and the subtle into a kind of televised grotesque. And “Ambush” wasn’t the first episode this season to do that. As Slate summed things up, harshly but accurately: UnREAL’s second season “has gone completely off the rails.”

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: Really?

Rachel: Yes.

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.

There are good things that have come out of that structure, certainly. “Casualty,” the episode that preceded “Ambush,” offered a subtle, and also meaningfully non-subtle, treatment of domestic and sexual violence. And “Ambush” itself, through Everlasting’s treatment of its black stars as pawns in its grand social experiment, is playing with important ideas about personal agency and cultural influence and the tenuous connections between those two things. As Jay, one of Everlasting’s producers and one of the show’s very few remaining moral compasses, tells Rachel about her role in that experiment: “This is not your story to tell.”

That’s a powerful line. It’s a good line. Here’s hoping there will be more like it as UnREAL’s second season goes on. For the moment, though, UnREAL’s own story now seems awkwardly reminiscent of Rachel’s: So determined is the show to Make a Difference™ for humanity, it has forgotten how to be human. The series seems so aware of itself as fodder for thinkpieces and cultural conversation—that it’s prioritized commentary over quality, and politics over art. Future episodes may well bring redemption for a series that started so strongly, and with such literary nuance; at this point, though, UnREAL is uncomfortably dromedarian—a show that seems to have been, like the messy culture it is reflecting, designed by committee.