'UnREAL' Season 2: TV Review

Sergei Bachlakov/A+E Networks
A summer pleasure, sans guilt.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer return for another season of scathing, deep-cutting reality TV satire on Lifetime.

In perhaps the most famous moment of the crackling 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success, famous newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) briefly sees through press agent Sidney Falco's (Tony Curtis) fast-talking exterior and pauses. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you," reflects Hunsecker. "You're a cookie full of arsenic."

Returning for its second season on Monday, Lifetime's UnREAL is an updated version of that idiom, a colorful macaron full of strychnine, perhaps? The series launched last summer and was reductively described as a satirical look behind the scenes of a Bachelor-style TV dating show. UnREAL's small-yet-devoted fan base quickly realized that creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro were interested in laughs, but they wanted the punchlines to cut deep. So yes, the show amusingly pulled back the curtain on the contrivances and shenanigans that go into crafting the illusion of these fairy-tale-peddling hits, but it truly thrived as a vicious and unflinching take on female friendship and competitiveness, sexual double standards and the marginalization of powerful women in Hollywood. And, anchored by Shiri Appleby's career-redefining performance, it also joined a wave of series using dark comedy to examine mental illness.

After the first season, there was some speculation about whether Noxon and Shapiro would take UnREAL to a different kind of unscripted stalwart, whether heading to an island to parody Survivor or following Appleby's Rachel on an inevitably doomed project with more socially conscious aspirations.

Instead, UnREAL has returned for another season of Everlasting, making the correct assumption that the combination of a comfortably repeating format and an endless supply of archetypal contestants can continue to make for effective television.

There are some changes. As we begin, Rachel and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) have found a new dynamic and a new sisterhood, forged around their matching "Money. Dick. Power." wrist tattoos. The new Everlasting suitor is Darius Hill (B.J. Britt), a star quarterback hoping to rehabilitate his image after a scandal that, if we're being frank, wouldn't fuel a day's news cycle in the actual NFL. More importantly, Darius is the first African-American suitor, which is the perfect achievement to fuel Rachel's belief that she's doing something important and that her situation has altered. On the surface, Rachel has become the new Quinn, Quinn is prepared to become the new Chet (Craig Bierko), and the old Chet is off in the wilderness learning that he has been cuckolded by the show he somewhat helped to create, returning determined to reassert his place atop the food chain.

Delusion and desperation fueled Rachel's arc last season, and the second season looks to have her wound even tighter. It's a minor miracle that her self-destructive streak hasn't hit bottom yet, but with Quinn unwilling or unable to give up control, Rachel's how-low-can-she-go limbo is already in motion through the first two episodes of the second season. Rachel's internal conflict is one of conscience and biology, and Appleby continues to thrive as her edges get more and more frayed. Appleby lets you see the drain that amorality takes on Rachel, which pairs perfectly with the enervation that Zimmer's Quinn gets from being bad. If UnREAL were reaching a bigger audience, or if Lifetime can get screeners into the right hands, both Appleby and Zimmer deserve a place in any Emmy conversation.

In jettisoning the Everlasting cast from the first season, UnREAL lost many of its breakout characters and attention-grabbing performances from the likes of Breeda Wool, Nathalie Kelley, Johanna Braddy and Ashley Scott. But like a dynasty sports team, UnREAL didn't rebuild so much as reload. Built into the show's DNA is the idea that Quinn and Rachel cast contestants for the drama they'll generate with each other and with the suitor, only to realize that nobody's as simple as they appear, which is a good writing formula for Noxon and Shapiro as well. It means that the series is able to introduce more new, somewhat complex female characters in two hours than many shows create in a multiseason run. I'm already interested in how things will play out with NFL owner's daughter Tiffany (Kim Matula), Confederacy-defending belle Beth Ann (Lindsay Musil), outspoken college activist Ruby (Denee Benton) and grieving Southern debutante Chantal (Survivor's Remorse breakout Meagan Tandy). There's a chance that the structural similarities between seasons could lead to repetition and dilution, but it hasn't happened yet, and the added twists of race and masculinity ought to keep things new enough.

UnREAL continues to have an issue that's a perfect gender inversion of decades of Hollywood entertainment and isn't really an issue at all so much as a series of open questions. It's an "Oh, poor baby" thing that would reek of privilege if I hadn't been just as prone to call shows on it in its native form, so I'm not going to shy away from mentioning it just because it's mostly intentional: UnREAL has no particular interest in its male characters and no particular aptitude when it comes to depicting them in complex ways. For every show with this problem, there are perhaps 100 shows with no particular interest in their female characters and no particular aptitude when it comes to depicting them in complex ways, making me ponder: Is Josh Kelly's Jeremy a parody of half-developed female love interests on lesser shows, or am I supposed to remember who he is from episode to episode? I don't. Jeremy appeared in the second-season premiere, and my initial reaction was, "Oh. Right. He's still here?" I really get the sense UnREAL wants me to care about Jeremy or to care about Rachel and Jeremy, but it's failing, so maybe it doesn't. Was it enough that Freddie Stroma was amply charming in the first season and that B.J. Britt brings a different charm this season? In this case, I think the answer is "Yes." The suitors on The Bachelor and its ilk are intended as abstractions, and we almost get offended if they transcend that to become real people with opinions on things other than "romance."

Fortunately, I know that Chet is meant as an increasingly manic caricature, and the transition from oblivious industry blowhard to laser-focused Men's Rights Activist has given Bierko a fun variation to play, though here I wonder how the show plans to handle the dangerousness that Bierko is bringing. And I'm sure that it's just a coincidence that after Bachelor host Chris Harrison blasted UnREAL as falling short of documentary accuracy, Everlasting host Graham (Brennan Elliott) has become an even sillier cardboard blowhard.

Harrison actually will have even more to gripe about this season because Chet's return already has set in motion some plot mechanics that will jeopardize the ability to suspend disbelief for anybody with even a basic knowledge of TV production. Harrison, however, is not a TV critic. And I'm not critiquing UnREAL based on its fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude, or at least I'm mostly getting past my concerns. Through two episodes, UnREAL has maintained its commitment to painful emotional reality, plus dialogue so scathing and raunchy I'm sometimes impressed it's able to fly on basic cable. Appleby and Zimmer continue to deliver strong and funny lead performances, playing two of TV's most outspoken and prickly characters. And with a fine new suitor comes a fresh and engaging new group of wifeys, blifeys and villains. Catching up on the first season is recommended, but you could almost just jump in fresh for the summer pleasure, no guilt here, that is UnREAL.

Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Josh Kelly, B.J. Britt, Meagan Tandy, Kim Matula, Denee Benton, Lindsay Musil
Creators: Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)