Late in the second season premiere of the outstanding Lifetime drama UnREAL, Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a top producer on Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque show-within-the-show, bullies naive young subordinate Madison (Genevieve Buechner) into behaving despicably with one of the Everlasting contestants, all for the sake of a sound byte they can put into a promo. As a tearful Madison struggles with her terrible assigned task, Rachel begins playing Cyrano into her earpiece, controlling one woman in order to manipulate another.
Asked later how it felt, Rachel – who, in UnREAL's first season, was presented as a reluctant, if talented, piece of the Everlasting machinery – smiles and replies, “Are you kidding? I feel like God.” And when she and Madison next interact, it's not so the younger woman can scold her or quit this awful job, but so she can ask Rachel to teach her how to feel like God herself.
This is UnREAL, a story about one kind of TV show that's ultimately a riveting example of its spiritual opposite: the cable anti-hero drama. The events of Everlasting itself are almost besides the point, especially since the series – created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (a former Bachelor producer herself) and Marti Noxon – makes clear early and often how manufactured and fake it all is. Instead, the series' primary interests are the same as you might find on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or The Americans: people being seduced by power to do monstrous things because they can, and because some corner of our society has made that acceptable, and even desirable. That it airs on Lifetime, and takes place backstage on a show like Everlasting, may obscure UnREAL's true genre and quality level, but it shouldn't. This is smart, painful, often wickedly funny material, grounded by two nuanced, committed lead performances by Appleby and (as Quinn, the older boss Rachel was once terrified of becoming, and now her aspirational goal) Constance Zimmer.
The first season laid out the rules of the world and the fraught relationship between Rachel (who has been diagnosed with several mental disorders – albeit primarily by the psychiatrist mother she wants no part of) and Quinn, and detailed the many ways the Everlasting producers take complicated, three-dimensional human being and, through careful editing and diabolical mindgames, turn them all into cartoonish types to fit the various slots. Quinn, for instance, is obsessed with making sure each season has a “wifey” – the pure (preferably blonde-haired and blue-eyed) and sweet woman the audience will want to see the suitor pick – and that she has enough people on hand to play the Bitch, or the Virgin, or the Desperate Older Woman. Along the way, the season acknowledged the ways that popular culture reinforces norms of gender and sex and class, and the topsy-turvy power dynamic that has a show like Everlasting, whose audience is largely women and gay men, ultimately controlled by straight guys like the show's creator Chet (Craig Bierko) and the various network suits.
Having established all that, Shapiro and Noxon get to go even deeper and bolder in season 2, which debuts tonight at 10 (I've seen the first two episodes). Everlasting's suitor this time out is Darius (B.J. Britt from Agents of SHIELD), a popular pro quarterback looking to do some image rehab at the same time that Quinn and Rachel are trying to “make history” (as Rachel frequently puts it to make herself feel more important) by putting a black man at the center of what's always been a very white show.
“He's not that black; he's… football black,” Quinn tries to reassure a skeptical network executive, before promising that, “the minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down.”
It's a scathing commentary about how far we haven't come, even in the context of something as shallow as Everlasting, and the season keeps it going with the women cast to tempt Darius, including a “hot racist” (who wears a Confederate flag bikini during production), a college activist who doesn't realize she's been cast to play Angry Black Woman, and a Sarah Lawrence grad whom the crew dubs “Hot Rachel,” a comparison neither she nor the actual Rachel appreciates.
And the new season is in many ways more unsettling than the last, because Rachel has – after Quinn blew up her attempt to escape this show, and this life, at the end of last season – now fully broken bad, rather than acting above a job that she is better at than anyone, including Quinn. There are some plot contortions along the way to keep her from maybe going too far, too fast – the end of the second episode introduces a bland-seeming new character to create even more chaos in the war for control of Everlasting – but credit to the UnREAL creative team for pushing Rachel further down this dark path this quickly, rather than going for a rehash where she starts the season again protesting too much before giving into her worst instincts within a few episodes.
Among the lies that shows like The Bachelor continually tell their audience is that each season is going to be bigger, and crazier than any of the ones before it. With the number of hot-button issues, big personalities, and brutally clever lines of dialogue introduced in these first two episodes alone, UnREAL season 2 seems in a position to genuinely outdo its predecessor. Last summer, the show's quality was a surprise because of what it was about and where it aired. Now, UnREAL isn't surprising. It's just thrilling.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com