UnREAL Recaps S3E1: Oath

by thethreepennyguignol

So, I have a slightly…fractious relationship with UnREAL. I think it’s best summed up in this article, that I wrote after the end of season two a couple of years ago, but if you want the tl;dr, a show that was ostensibly about the goings-on behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality show and the grotesquely nightmarish manipulation exacted on the hapless contestants by the staff lost sight of it’s meta-ness and became too wrapped up in it’s own drama (and major restructuring in UnREAL’s writers room led to some scrappy, messy plots and arcs to boot). But I still think the first series is brilliant and I adore both Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby, who play showrunner Quinn and producer Rachel respectively, so when season three rolled around, I knew I had to give it a go.

And I’m going to dive right in here and point out that UnREAL seems to be as keen as I am to wipe the slate clean and move on to something new. The first shot of the series is Rachel, floating face down in a lake as part of her attempted guerilla therapy to heal herself after the trauma of the previous few months, while Quinn stands on the shore and tosses rocks at her. A pitch meeting for Everlasting, the show around which UnREAL is based, seems to lay down the goals for the season of the real-life show – don’t kill anyone for dumb reasons, focus more on the women, and get that Emmy (Constance Zimmer was nominated for her performance last season, and by God they’re going to get it for her this time around). At one point, in the biggest laugh of the episode, Chet (a wild-eyed Craig Bierko), the show’s original creator and all-round useless fuck, produces a knife from nowhere and suggests they all take a blood oath to leave behind everything that happened on the previous season. If they’re up for it, I am too.

And if we take what the show has left behind out of it, that leaves us with what the show actually is now. As premiers go, this isn’t the most confident one, but it does settle into some interesting plot points. One of the my favourite things the show has done is create two phenomenal female anitheroes in Quinn and Rachel: for the latter, her attempts to heal herself from her numerous mental instabilities is always undermined by her absolute addiction to control and manipulating the people around her. As the episode opens, she reveals that she’s focusing on sticking to a “no-lie” streak (which involves her chewing the utter fuck out of perenium-ally fuck-up Chet in the most satisfying way imaginable), but it can’t last long as she is swiftly seduced back to Everlasting after they cast their first bachelorette – oh, sorry, I mean Suitress. There’ some neat meta-riffing here on what it means to be a likeable, desirable woman in television with the focus of a woman as the focus of Everlasting for the first time, and I’m keen to see how they reflect it with Quinn, Rachel, and the rest of the female cast.

But anyway: I find the way they show has explored women and mental illness through Rachel (and some other characters, most of them since vanished) fascinating and by far one of it’s strongest features, and I’m happy watching at how they unpick her apparently serene facade over the course of the season.

And then there’s Quinn – Constance Zimmer has the lion’s share of the great stuff this episode, whether it’s yelling about making her pussy wet into a walkie-talkie or that brief, brutal moment of devastation when her ex, Chet, tells her that his relationship with the much-younger model on his arm is easier than anything he had with her. But I love Quinn because she is so deeply and confidently unlikeable. She’s not here to do anything but establish herself the top of the game and the infallible power at the head of the show – her gleeful firing of a producer who didn’t live up to her expectations is just so 100% gloriously her, an instant reminder as to what it was that hooked me into this show in the first place. Her and Rachel, both falling apart at the seams and relying on one another to hold the other together, are a joy to behold, one of TV’s great, gruesome partnerships. They bring out the worst in each other, which just so happens to be the best thing imaginable for their jobs.

There’s still some of the shit that irritated me about last season – Jeremy, the man who provided last season’s cliffhanger in the form of killing off season two’s main antagonists, is still around and still just as annoying and badly-acted as ever, while I find it hard to give too much of a shit about whatever schemes the ambitious young producer Madison has going on. But as the show centres in on the personal struggles of Quinn and Rachel, forces them back into their deliciously dysfunctional relationship once more, and delves into what a woman on TV has to do to catch a break round here, I’m settling in for another season, and I’m a lot more confident this time around.

If you liked this recap and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon! You can also check out my other recaps of American Crime Story, Riverdale, and Carrie, if that’s what you’re into.

(header image courtesy of Spolier TV)