Where Did UnREAL Season 2 Go Wrong?
After season one, I was totally enamoured with UnREAL. It was an odd little show, a meta-drama set behind-the-scenes of a reality dating so that certainly was not The Bachelor, no siree bob, not a chance in hell, and it just…worked. Packed with feminist commentary, phenomenal performances (Constance Zimmer, deservedly, got nominated for her Emmy earlier this year), and some real attempts to depict the racism, sexism, and all-round awfulness that goes into making shows like Not the Bachelor, it was just a solid, engrossing ten episodes of TV. Yeah, it had some missteps, but what first season doesn’t? Their eagerly-awaited second season would surely solidify their good points and do away with their excess baggage.
But, well. Obviously, spoilers for season two coming up, because I have been dying to talk about UnREAL’s second season for weeks and at least wanted to wait till the finale aired (as it did on Monday night) before I cast any stones in their direction. And now it has, and have some OPINIONS.
I think I’ve maybe spoken about American Horror Story once or twice in the past (it’s hard to be sure, though), because that’s a show I love to hate and hate to love. One of it’s main problems is the way it burns through plots, dropping in what seem like enormous plot points only to forget about them or tie them up with a throwaway line the next episode so they can get on to the rest of the shit Ryan Murphy tossed at the wall that year. But, at the very least, in AHS, most of the plots were relentlessly ridiculous anyway- oh, Neil Patrick Harris has been signed on to play a psychopathic ventriloquist for three episodes? Fine, you do you. But UnREAL suffered from similar problems- except the plots they were burning through had a lot more weight than Danny Huston fake-playing the saxophone.
I mean, UnREAL had always been a mildly uncomfortable show to watch, as it dealt with showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) manipulating people into doing unthinkable things, often with unthinkable consequences. But this season, those unthinkable things rarely came with consequences. Take, for example, the notorious episode which featured the shooting of an unarmed black man by the police, more or less orchestrated by two white people on the hunt for “edgy” television- while the plot was always going to be a tricky one, it seemed like it was trying to expose the hypocrisy of the white media pushing for these kinds of tragedies.
Except, of course, it was forgotten the week later, the actual victim of the shooting cropping up weeks later to get three lines that didn’t delve one ounce into his trauma. And this was just one of many plots that bubbled to the surface only to be swiftly forgotten- Rachel’s abusive mother, Quinn’s desire for a baby and following discovery that she can’t have one, Rachel’s ex-flame beating the crap out of her only to be back in the fold by the end of the season…each one lit up like a match, the fizzled out like a match dunked in lukewarm dishwater. And when the plots seem to carry so much dramatic weight, that feels cynical and cheap.
And, to bring it back to that awful black-man-gets-shot plot, the show has also lost much of it’s meta-ness, one of the things that made the first season so interesting- this was a show that deeply understood what it was taking on, and refused to let it’s own drama rise to the stupid levels of the reality TV it claimed to parody. With season two, it seemed to lose much of that self-awareness- the biggest example of that, for me, was with the aforementioned plot that attempted to tackle issues affecting the black community and, instead of focusing on the victim of the shooting, decided to tell that story through a series of almost-entirely-white characters, apparently oblivious to the double-standard.
The show quickly devolved into dizzying heights of soap operatics, with the season closing out on the apparent car-sabotage and murder of two of the season’s antagonists (well, it’s hard to say as the show went back and forth over them so often, but either way, they’re probably dead now). Season one slyly put the insanity and manipulated drama of reality TV under the microscope, while the behind-the-scenes meat of the show dealt with the fallout from it- this season, the show was a messy spiderweb of odd romances, fuzzy character motivations, and plot points throw in seemingly to hook in a few more of those sweet, sweet controversy viewers, while leaving the actual reality TV portion of the show to simmer away boringly as barely more than a framing device.
UnREAL is still a show that interests me- mainly because of the awesome performances and occasional compelling episode- but, as the second season draws to a close, it seems more and more like the show has fallen victim to producing the kind of drama it attempted to parody. And it’s all the worse for it.