Lifetime’s reality-tv drama UnREAL returns this week after a long hiatus and a troubled second season. EW TV Critic Darren Franich felt the third season premiere recaptured the tricky, provocative mojo. EW Senior Writer Natalie Abrams respectfully disagreed. Then they talked about it. SPOILERS AHEAD for the season 3 premiere of UnREAL.
NAT: Here we are again, Darren, disagreeing about another TV show. I see in your review that you gave the third season of UnREAL a B+ and I’m quite surprised. I’ve now seen the first two episodes and I’m having a hard time reconciling why I fell in love with this show in the first place. The first season was groundbreaking, pulling back the curtain on reality TV shows by revealing how the sausage gets made, a tantalizing concept that got my heart pumping despite the fact that I have never watched The Bachelor and I hate reality TV.
Where the second season went off the rails, ambitiously trying to tackle hot-button issues from abuse to racial profiling, this season hits in the middle of the #MeToo era and asks us to believe that a female Suitress, likened as the female Elon Musk, would ever dumb herself down just to find a man — an actual story line in episode 2! I just cringed writing that last sentence. I’ve always been Team Quinn and Rachel, but I now find myself at odds with whether to root for our supposed heroines when they — along with UnREAL‘s two female executive producers — would let that idea make it to air.
DARREN: I hate when we disagree, Nat, but I love when you walk over to my desk to tell me how wrong I am! And in fairness, I mentioned in my review that just accepting Serena as a Suitress requires suspension of disbelief. A tabloid-y aristocrat, a fading athlete: Sure, they’d star on a romance competition show. A tech-industry rainmaker? Unlikely: A real-world Serena would aim for Shark Tank. But I like the new energy that Caitlin FitzGerald brings to the show, and was fascinated to see how Quinn and Rachel react to her. Quinn tells Rachel that Serena “is not the avatar for you and me,” but part of the fun of UnREAL is how the producers use all the contestants as their avatars, living stand-ins for their own internal dramas.
And Serena’s actions in the first two episodes felt like a natural outgrowth of a larger UnREAL idea: That Everlasting makes everyone into their worst selves. Rachel feels this most strongly — her UnREAL origin story is a mental breakdown — and her struggle with her own reality show dramatizes my struggles with the reality TV that I watch. (Possible internal bias: I am maybe the only person to recap both Jersey Shore AND Kourtney and Kim Take New York.) All this is to say: I tend to assume that everyone on UnREAL is awful, in an awfully human way. So it didn’t feel to me like the show was asking us to root for Serena’s self-dumbening, no more than it asks us to root for the (marvelous, stunning, sickening) methods Quinn uses to torture her contestants the way The Good Place’s demons torture the deceased.
I’m sorry if this is a maddening response — “It’s supposed to be disturbing!” — and I’d love to hear more about why these first two episodes felt so totally wrong to you. Are you totally unconvinced by Serena as a focal character for this new season? Or do you feel like the actions taken by Rachel and Quinn are radically different from how they worked with past Everlasting contestants? And is there anything the (real or fictional) showrunners could do to win you back to season 3?
NAT: I’m all for another strong female shaking up the dynamic between Quinn and Rachel, particularly because those who have come before Serena have simply served as chess pieces the duo have moved around the board to benefit their own needs — those being the success of the show above all else, even through unconventional means. But I’m torn on Serena, namely because I feel like the show may only be leading me to believe she’s not going to be manipulated by Quinn and Rachel. I would buy Serena as the focal point if I didn’t totally distrust her methods. She asks Rachel not to bullsh— her, and yet I feel like Serena spends the first two episodes doing just that to everyone else — well, until its convenient that Quinn gets a much-needed win, and Serena inexplicably helps the show avoid a lawsuit. (Mild spoilers, sorry!)
To be fair, UnREAL is tackling all of this with a wink and a nod from the get-go. Take the fact that Rachel and Quinn actually needed Chet to help pitch the Suitress idea to the network as proof that the show knows exactly what it’s doing. But it doesn’t mean they should be doing it. Yes, everything about UnREAL is supposed to be disturbing, but a moment in the premiere took the show to a new cringeworthy level — that being Serena drunkenly hooking up with one of the suitors on the first night. (I recognize the double standard here of when a man does it, he’s a player, but when it’s a woman, she’s slut-shamed.) I swear I’m not trying to slut-shame Serena, but there’s a big difference between Adam (Freddie Stroma) quickly hooking up with Grace (Nathalie Kelley), with whom he saw a future, versus Serena and that jockey, whom we know she didn’t even want in the competition! Sure, there’s supposed to be something empowering about a woman who takes charge of her sexuality, but if she was trying to prove something there, I’m not sure even she knows what it’s supposed to be.
With all this said, let’s be honest, there’s nothing the showrunners need to do to win me back, because UnREAL is the crack that I can’t give up, a guilty pleasure train wreck from which I can’t look away.
DARREN: I love your comparison of Adam to Serena, Nat, and how his first-night hookup feels honest where hers feels farcical. On one hand, I wonder if the smarter move for UnREAL season 3 would’ve been to make the Suitress, like, a female Adam Cromwell: A socialite with an Instagram following, looking to take her brand from Kourtney to Kim. You’d believe immediately that such a person would be a little incoherent with her messaging.
But on the other hand, the best-case scenario for this season is exactly what you just described: While Quinn and Rachel try to move Serena as a chess piece, she also starts using them, creating a third link in the show’s chain of Brilliant Woman Who Bring Out The Best And Worst In Each Other. When that dynamic comes to the foreground in these early episodes, it invigorates the show, in a way that nothing really invigorated season 2.
One of the things I like about UnREAL — even the worst parts, even last season’s double murder! — is how the show just takes for granted that the silliest kind of television production (hot sex idiots in big house!) is also a battleground of provocative ideas. Your conversation about slut-shaming is, to me, an example of this premiere’s tricky success: Whether you were okay with That Thing That Happened Between Serena And The Jockey or you found it despicably cringeworthy, it definitely elicited a reaction. I think that’s why I find UnREAL unquittable, a pleasure that is in no way guilty. In the second episode, there’s a great bit where Rachel — having fully committed herself to a life of honesty and celibacy — walks back into a house full of lies and hot man-candy. This can only end poorly, and I have an appetite for UnReal‘s destruction.
Besides That Thing With The Jockey, Nat, how did you feel the start of season 3 compared to the highs and lows of the show’s past? And I’d be intrigued to know: Do you feel like, on some level, everything about America today has changed the experience of watching this show? You mentioned #MeToo, but I also think a lot about a certain reality TV star who lives in Washington, D.C. now. Is it just weirder to watch a funny-scary satire of reality television than it was in 2015?
NAT: I think you hit the nail on the head there, Darren. If everyday life has become a constant cringe-fest of uncertainty that makes me feel like I’m living in a reality show chock-full of sometimes literally unbelievable moments that will never end, why subject myself to watching the exact same thing for fun?
I’m not yet invested in any of these new secondary characters to pass judgment on this season’s highs and lows just yet, but there’s a tantalizing tease in the second hour of Madison’s motivations that both infuriates — ugh, another backstabbing woman story line?! — and intrigues me — oh, honey, you’re just too young to really understand what you’re doing.
Ultimately, what’s going to keep me coming back is this symbiotic relationship between Quinn and Rachel that sometimes borders on this weird, pseudo-mother/daughter dynamic, other times mentor-mentee, but boils down to them needing each other, even if they won’t admit it. That, to me, will always be more fascinating than the machinations and manipulations of Everlasting. Maybe it’s time for a fourth season to move away from that big house and all its haunting memories and take this show on the road, whether that’s Everlasting: Road Trip or a new show purely of Quinn and Rachel’s making. Would watch. Any hopes for the future, Darren?
DARREN: The Quinn-Rachel dynamic is one of my favorite partnerships on TV, so anything that narrows the focus onto them would be brilliant. I love your idea of rebooting the show away from the familiar Everlasting house. It makes me wonder: What kind of reality show would Quinn and Rachel create together? And if we watched them create that show, wouldn’t that be a great way to explore everything about them, bringing to the forefront Quinn’s ambitions as a TV producer and Rachel’s ambitions toward meaningful entertainment?
With that in mind, what I’m looking for from the rest of season 3 is closure. Not an ending, necessarily, but a winding down of some subplots and a willingness to change. Chet and Jeremy feel a little bit like ghosts of boyfriends past at this point. But like you, I’m both appalled and fascinated by Madison, and I wonder if there’s a future for the show where she’s a true ally for Rachel and Quinn — maybe even a double mentee, absorbing lessons from both her elders while pursuing her own young-millennial path to glory. (Go, young millennials, go! Show us the better future we failed to make for you!)
Either that, or Everlasting: Road Trip, which sounds like the Jersey Shore Family Vacation of the UnREALverse. Or maybe they could do a season focused on the production of Celebrity Everlasting? They could cast Shannon Elizabeth as herself — she was great on Celebrity Big Brother! No question, we’re all struggling to maintain our sanity in the reality show America has become. So UnREAL still feels like urgent viewing for me: A dark mirror held up to our modern madness — and, maybe, a roadmap for survival.
UnREAL airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.