Lifetime’s UnREAL remains one of TV’s most addictive dramas

What America wants, and what the network knows they want, is a fairy tale. – Quinn King

Of all potential backdrops or overarching concepts upon which to base a television drama, it’s quite possible none could be more ripe for poor execution or half-assery than a scripted take on reality television. Perhaps I’m the wrong one to opine on this, as other than extreme exceptions, I despise the form. I watched The Real World’s first five seasons and I was into some of the ideas for other shows for a bit, but in general, I just don’t buy the “reality” that presents itself through these efforts.

So, when you marry Lifetime – a network known far more for Jim Gaffigan joking about the station’s propensity to showcase Meredith Baxter Birney being beaten with a rod by a violent husband – with a show based on a dating competition program, yikes.

That is unless you have Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro at the helm, because after a stellar opening season in 2015, UnREAL returns to the network this week and does so with confidence, smart writing, and pulsating drama. Admittedly, this is a difficult show to review in print because it can be hard to discern which show I’m talking about. I offer my apologies for those times of confusion in advance.

We promised the network suicide ratings and we need to deliver. – Quinn King

Behind the scenes of “Everlasting,” producers struggle with authority and with how to manipulate both the contestants and each other to pull off the highest ratings. Coming off a season that featured a suicide and all levels of crazy, the ratings expectations are through the roof for the show’s 14th season. How do you top death on a dating show? What can you possibly do to trump that kind of attention grabbing story?

You make history.

A large part of the first two episodes of the new season of UnREAL are spent on the show’s new suitor. For the first time in the decade-plus run of Everlasting, the show’s bachelor is black, and he’s also a star quarterback. Darius Beck (B.J. Britt) accidentally called a female sports reporter a “bitch” in an interview, which of course went viral and resulted in a major hit to his reputation. Everlasting is part of a rehabilitation effort, but I have a feeling it might end up having the opposite effect. How about you?

It takes careful maneuvering to keep the race angle from becoming extremely unremarkable, because it’s done so often on television. It’s compelling, but again, many shows do it poorly or in such a heavy-handed manner that all context or power is lost. In the case of UnREAL, the central focus is on making sure there’s a dual side to everything that’s handed to the audience. Even though you might be able to see what the writers want you to take from certain portions, it’s less about making a statement than making well-designed drama.

While Everlasting’s producers are excited about the idea of changing the world, others worry that Beck’s entourage might result in too many blacks on screen at once, potentially harming the ratings. One black producer, Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), tries to balance his ambition with his inherent feeling that so much of what his employers are engaged in is wrong. Beck’s race is kept from the contestants (though it leaks to a few), done so intentionally to get natural reactions from the women as he steps out of the limo.

She’s pretty, but can she speak? – Quinn King

Everlasting’s contestants run the gamut, from a Pakistani woman with a loose tie to Osama Bin Laden to an NFL owner’s daughter to a southern blonde who happened to take photos in a confederate flag bikini to her supposed opposite, a “Blacktivist” who owns an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. While all of this sounds awfully convenient, that’s kind of the point of both the show and the “show.” Nothing is natural here, although occasionally the producers luck into something they can exploit on camera for conflict or humiliation. And, though I’m by no means part of a dating show’s viewership, all of it feels real. We all sense reality television is a crock, and here we’re able to live within a fictionalized universe where we know it is.

Last year, some former staff members of reality shows spoke on UnREAL and the gist of what was said in the responses is that much of what you see is how things actually play out on actual dating shows. It’s comparable to the way politicians react to House of Cards, but here’s the thing:

UnREAL is better structured and better executed than House of Cards, and that’s no egregious slight to Willimon’s adaptation. This is a show that takes its subject matter to a consistently high level and weaves brilliant writing and rapid pacing to make the show continually feel like a thrill ride more than a drama. And, in similar fashion to Cards, Lifetime’s hit series is taken to a much higher level due to its cast.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are lit dynamite on the screen, whether they’re together or separate, and at the moments where the two intertwine directly, the results are intense, vicious, and gorgeously nasty. The season opens with Rachel Goldberg (Appleby) and Quinn King (Zimmer) – the two women currently in charge of Everlasting – getting matching wrist tattoos before engaging in Vegas debauchery. The ink reads “Money, Dick, Power,” which refers to what both want from their lives, and how their success will lead them through those three steps. There may be some levity there, but in general, these two will screw their way through anyone to achieve anything, with every conceivable definition of the word “screw” being accurate.

I’m not manic. I’m changing the world. – Rachel Goldberg

Goldberg played the role of supervising producer for Everlasting in the past, and her largest asset is her ability to get the absolute worst out of any contestant or to draw the needed emotional moment that the show requires in order to complete its mission of being half-fairy tale, half-societal nightmare. Appleby is an actress who was ready for this kind of character, and she can hit the dialogue, the dead eyes, and the guilt and depression that come with it in extraordinary fashion. She also has to deal with being promoted and that temporarily demoted by her semi-mentor, which leads to a big decision to go higher up the chain of command. That choice ultimately backfires on her.

Some have compared UnREAL to Breaking Bad, and while I don’t entirely concur, there are certainly moments where Rachel is Jesse Pinkman – fighting her past and her dark desire to go the wrong way – and even a few Walter White scenes for Constance Zimmer. In the depth of characterization and the inner turmoil of the show’s world, it’s a fun ride, but it’s an ugly ride.

I know you think you’re starting a revolution but what we need right now are wet panties. – Quinn King

Zimmer was usually better than her Entourage material and has long been a versatile Hollywood hand, but Quinn King couldn’t exist without her talent and energy. She can play miserable asshole as well as anybody, and when it’s time for business, she’s able to summon up her demons and become an unflinching dick. By the way, there’s no way to write this without some salty language, because seriously, these people are extremely unpleasant, yet somehow you find yourself rooting for them more often than you’d think. Maybe it is like Breaking Bad after all.

It turns out being a sexist man baby on my set has consequences. – Rachel Goldberg

I use the word “dick” because it references the other side of UnREAL’s new season, as Chet (Craig Bierko), returns from a Patagonian Paleolithic retreat and is in full male superiority mode. Add Bierko to the list of individuals adept at assholery-thespianism. He cheated on Quinn, had a drug problem, a money problem, and a douchebag problem in Season 1, but you’ve seen nothing until you see him proclaim his dominance in the season opener. These aren’t empty words either. He makes a big-time move to try and derail Season 14 on the first night of shooting, which leads to a fight, a competition, and eventually, a new player in the mix in Coleman Wasserman (Michael Rady of Jane the Virgin fame). There’s definitely a man vs. woman element, with Chet representing the male movement, even though it hasn’t been explicitly stated to this point.

Two episodes into the new season and I’ve already seen racism, sexism, meaningless intercourse, power struggles, drug use, total deceit, and a host of despicable characters placed dangerously close to one another. Just wait until you hear what the “kill list” is for contestants on Everlasting.

Is there a BETTER use of your time during the summer months than to plop down and, as so many shows do, remind yourself maybe you’re not that bad after all? Nobody does morally bankrupt in modern society quite like UnREAL, but there’s a soul behind the madness, a quiet morality pushing against the grossness of it all.

For the first time since Supermarket Sweep departed the airwaves, Lifetime has something I can define as appointment television for me as a viewer. The writing is rock solid, the acting superb, and the plot almost immediately addicting. Irrespective of gender and past your notions of what a network is and isn’t, don’t overlook one of the year’s best dramas and wildest, take no prisoners viewing experiences.

UnREAL airs Monday nights at 10 PM ET/PT on Lifetime. Season 2 premiered on June 6, 2016.

Follow me on Twitter @GuyNamedJason. I talk television there, amongst other things.

Written by Jason Martin