Look, I was surprised as anyone when UnREAL came on the scene last year, premiering on Lifetime of all places, and somehow made a show about the behind the scenes inner workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show compelling and addictive television. The dialogue was sharp and shockingly funny at times, the performances were raw and human and fully committed to the more ridiculous aspects of the material (huge congrats to Constance Zimmer for her much-deserved Emmy nomination) and there is no question that this show exceeded everything from its concept to its network home by countless miles. It was a surprise that pretty much nobody saw coming and I joined in with the chorus of voices singing its praises and encouraging others to check in with this unexpected gem.
But I never lost sight of what this show was. I feel like maybe some others did.
And I kind of get it. Like I said, no one expected UnREAL to be as good and immensely watchable (and bingeable, as later fans of the show would discover) as it is so it’s easy to mistake “vastly exceeding expectations” with greatness. It happens. There’s also the fact that this is a show with two fantastic female leads, one a WB/CW graduate who hasn’t done much since Roswell and Life Unexpected (Shiri Appleby), whereas Constance Zimmer has been criminally underused for years upon years. It’s been great to see a show with two great actresses getting material they deserve; material that is rich and funny and despicable in a way that so many roles for women simply aren’t. For those who spend any amount of time in circles where TV is discussed, there’s such a hunger for more complicated female characters on TV, and here they are! UnREAL also has this slick veneer of satire it hides in, poking fun at reality TV culture–from an insider’s perspective, no less–and that, in and of itself, feels like something an intelligent show would do. And the show is intelligent at times….many other times, though….not so much.
And that’s okay. I think we do this show a disservice when it gets added generously to Dream Emmy ballots and nominated for TCAs and things of that nature because it is not that good. We’re overselling it. And maybe it’s because of some of those reasons listed above or maybe for some other reason entirely, but this is a show that is sometimes blatantly absurd and downright silly and juvenile just by its very nature, so to present it as something so high above the gutter in which it likes to play is a problem. I think. And, as I’ll argue later, has probably effected your enjoyment of the show as well.
But one of the arguments I’ve seen made repeatedly by its staunchest supporters is that UnREAL doesn’t get taken as seriously as other prestige dramas because it’s a female-skewing show. I suppose that could be a factor, but I just don’t see any universe where UnREAL should be considered one of the BEST dramas on TV. I’d compare it to the very male-oriented Billions on Showtime. Now, to be fair, UnREAL had a much better first season and a much tighter grip on its identity, but both shows are silly, over the top, but given some leeway because there’s smart writing and terrific performances. It’s not the best TV has to offer, but there are some great things about both series. I’ve seen the same “female-skewing” argument used to talk about Jane The Virgin’s exclusion from some lists or awards shows and that’s a much easier case to make since Jane leans in hard to its whimsy and exists as a comedy. I certainly think it was more deserving of an Emmy nom than some of the others. But UnREAL is a drama, which means it is often having characters respond very seriously to situations that are silly or downright stupid. I’m not complaining about that–it’s part of what I love about the show–but it does make it harder to argue that UnREAL is a serious drama.
No, let’s be honest. UnREAL would have been called a guilty pleasure before, but now, we don’t feel guilty about watching anything–nor should we. But it’s a show that embraces its trashy side, errs on the side of ridiculous and often has characters talking deadly serious about the stakes of a reality dating show. Even when the stakes are high–such as Darius’s back injury–it’s all handled with such straight-faced absurdity, you can’t help but laugh. And again, that’s OKAY. That’s how we should be enjoying UnREAL.
I’m seeing more and more reviews and tweets and other comments from those who feel like this season of UnREAL is vastly inferior to season one. Calling out the silliness of it all, of the messy way it’s handling a story of domestic abuse, or the hilarious, utter lack of subtlety whenever it’s talking about literally anything….and I’m just over here, like, what show did you think you were watching? At some point in season one, while expectations were being exceeded, people oversold the show in their own minds, convincing themselves that it was actually one of the best dramas on television and when they came back to this deliriously nuts hot mess, they were confused.
Nothing changed. Not really.
Obviously you could argue that season one is better than season two and that’s mostly because the concept just felt fresher. But season one still had more than its fair share of issues. Faith’s arc last season that found her coming out to her southern family was praised by many, but to me, it was clearly played with the same cornball heavy-handedness we saw in the episode with Ruby’s dad this year. Look, I appreciate that the show is discussing race and sexuality, but let’s not pretend it’s discussing any of it at some high level. It’s going for low-hanging fruit and blowing it all up in sensational situations. So when Darius ended up at Beth-Ann’s family home, confronted by her meth-head ex while her redneck dad (who has painted everything on his property with a confederate flag, it seems) wields a shotgun, I’m applauding at the absurdity of it all. I’m not mourning the show UnREAL used to be. Because this was the show it always was.
All of the girls last year were written in broad strokes, given just enough shading and depth to excuse them being caricatures, just like they are this season. Last season, the show featured a character committing suicide and it became very clear very quickly that this show had no business tackling such a serious topic. Deja vu with domestic abuse this year. But UnREAL throws everything and the kitchen sink at its audience–in the same way that reality TV often does–and yeah, there’s some smart dialogue, crackling one-liners and even a bit of insightful commentary from time to time all thrown in there, but at its core, it’s just juggling all these grenades because the explosions are fun, not because it’s actually interested in having some kind of mature discussion about them.
Now there are definitely things to nitpick about season two. The Chet/Quinn tug of war that dominated the first few episodes of season two was exhausting and irritating on a different level than most of the show, I felt. The addition of Ioan Gruffudd and moderately attractive showrunner guy with glasses (that’s his name, I’m almost certain) along with the heavy focus on Chet and Jeremy feels like about ten love interests too many (and look! Adam’s back!), but I’d argue that the overall DNA of the show remains the same.
It’s fun to get excited about a show. Especially something that catches us off guard that we get to tell all our friends about. But when we overhype something, I think we can hurt the show for others and eventually, ourselves. Now that the new car smell has worn off, UnREAL still is what it is–doing its ludicrous thing, same as ever–but it’s starting to feel lacking. Something’s wrong with this season. Something’s different. It’s too this, too that. I think it’s time to face the fact to realize that UnREAL isn’t the problem, you are. UnREAL didn’t change, you just took off your rose-colored internet hype machine glasses and now you see the show for what it is. Look, when I consider all the things that have been said and written about UnREAL, it ain’t all that. But it’s still a lot of fun and far better than anyone would have ever expected. Don’t leave because the Honeymoon phase is over. Learn to love and embrace UnREAL for what it is, flaws and all.