In its first season, Lifetime’s UnREAL was a bit of a miracle. It gave us a duo of female anti-heroes unlike any we’d seen in a long time, if ever, and managed to walk the fine line between lurid and brilliant. Critics took notice, despite the Lifetime stamp, and the show racked up tons of accolades, including a Peabody Award. Fans had high hopes for season two, and at the start, the show seemed to be following the path to greatness that season one had forged. Oh, how wrong we were.
It became clear a few episodes into season two that the creative minds behind the show had no idea how to handle the issues they wanted to take on. The show introduced a black Suitor, Darius (B.J. Britt) and this creative choice could have led to some interesting engagement with the current issues concerning race in America. Similarly, UnREAL could have explored the conflict between the police and the black community in a nuanced way. However, both storylines came to an ugly head when an unarmed black man gets shot by a police officer and the whole ordeal becomes a teachable moment for our white female protagonist. The choice was misguided at best, downright ugly at worst. The black suitor and “wifeys” only served to advance the story of the show’s white protagonists, never becoming self-motivated characters.
The show also mishandled abuse in multiple forms. Between Jeremy (Josh Kelly) punching Rachel (Shiri Appleby) in the face because he just loved her so damn much but she dared question his masculinity and the revelation that Rachel had been raped by one of her mother’s psych patients as a child, the writers apparently decided that the impetus for Rachel’s growth this season was to physically pummel her. The rape reveal proved to be a particularly cheap moment, used for shock value and as an explanation for Rachel’s “damage” in a way that was a real disservice to the character and to rape victims in general. This lazy trope as a shortcut for edgy character development has got to stop. It’s just bad writing.
However, easily the biggest issue of the season came from the way the show set Rachel and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) at odds. These two bring out the best in each other, yet for most of the season they barely interacted except to trade a few barbs. Viewers tune in to watch them ruthlessly guide the great ship Everlasting, and God help anyone who gets in their way. Instead, UnREAL devoted a majority of the season to both women finding love with men who want to save them. Michael Rady and Ioan Gruffudd delivered workmanlike performances throughout the season as the bland love interests, and neither can spark up anything close to the chemistry that Appleby and Zimmer have together.