In the new season of UnREAL, an enterprising producer pitches a TV show about the cutting edge of queer dance culture and is instantly turned down. “I need a four-quadrant juggernaut,” the producer is told, “not, like, an eighth-of-a-quadrant niche show that maybe gets a summer run on basic cable.” It’s a refreshingly self-aware line from the Peabody-winning Lifetime soap, whose last episode aired in August 2016, especially after its previous season collapsed under the weight of its own portentousness. Despite its third showrunner in as many seasons, UnREAL returns with its beguiling strengths and glaring weaknesses intact. It’s still the same fascinating, frustrating series, but a whiff of recycled-ness has definitely settled in.
Season three features UnREAL’s first-ever Suitress, a “female Elon Musk” inexplicably looking for love on a nationally televised reality dating show called Everlasting (modeled after the Bachelor franchise, where co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked for nine seasons over three years). Played by the stealthily steely Caitlin FitzGerald, Serena, a Silicon Valley powerhouse who calls Mark Zuckerberg a poker pal, is impossible to believe as a willing Everlasting bachelorette. But if the character’s motivations aren’t quite plausible, she’s an apt conduit through which to explore the pitfalls of female ambition. As Everlasting’s jaded executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) puts it, “You’re smart, pretty and successful. Half of America already hates you.”
UnREAL has always been about the struggle to live by one’s ideals, especially in an all-consuming work environment where morality quickly becomes a liability. Quinn’s deputy Rachel (Shiri Appleby) famously returned to the Everlasting set in the pilot in a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, then proceeded to manipulate or undermine pretty much every other woman around her. Her attempts to use Everlasting as a vehicle for progressive change keep butting against Quinn’s more cynical impulses for higher ratings, dramatic moments, contemptuous pandering to the traditional audience at home and, this year, a TV empire a la Shondaland.
The first two episodes of the new season are bracingly good, mining this thematic richness as Rachel and Quinn take every unkind word about Serena personally. The venture capitalist is, after all, exactly who they aspire to be (powerful, independent, respected) and who they fear they might become (too successful to be fuckable). Serena might also be smarter than Rachel and Quinn, who have charged themselves with the responsibility of controlling and “producing” someone who keeps outfoxing them. This Suitress makes unusual demands, constructs her own charts of the men and bribes PAs to gain (forbidden) internet access so she can Google the dudes during her off time. Her unwillingness to play along raises questions about how Quinn will edit Serena and thus frame this ambitious, if difficult, woman via a wide-reaching platform.
This heady topicality is, I’d guess, why most UnREAL fans have tuned in. But the show’s thematic substantiveness hasn’t been well served by its relatively thin premise, a state of affairs underscored by the first five episodes of season three (the portion allotted to critics). And so we’re still stuck with characters like Chet (Craig Bierko) and Jeremy (Josh Kelly), who ran out their usefulness a while ago, while we once again watch Quinn, Rachel and the other producers do terrible, irresponsible things to the on-camera talent to further their own goals. After one death in UnREAL‘s debut season and two in its sophomore year, though, I’m not sure where else this tack of “Shock and Ugh” is supposed to take us.
Junior producers Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Madison (Genevieve Buechner) are finally allowed to be more than foils this season. But particularly with the addition of mercurial psychologist Dr. Simon (Brandon Jay McLaren), whose intentions for being on set keep shifting, this year’s storylines keep expanding without going to new places or dealing with the heavy fallout from previous years. And the blandness of the Suitress‘ wooers as characters make the show-within-the-show feel increasingly distant as the season shifts focus to Quinn’s feud with network president Gary (Christopher Cousins). The writers’ ambitions are applaudable, but at this point they should know better than anyone the power of editing.
Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Josh Kelly, Caitlin FitzGerald, Genevieve Buechner, Brandon Jay McLaren
Creators: Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Showrunner: Stacy Rukeyser
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)