‘UnREAL’ Has Turned into the Messy Reality Show It Parodied

The sophomore bow of Lifetime's critical hit often resembled the very thing it's satirizing.

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Aug 11 2016, 1:55pm

All photos courtesy of Lifetime

It's a twist that not even Chris Harrison could have foreseen: Last summer, two of TV's most shameless pleasures, UnREAL and The Bachelorette, provided some of the medium's most progressive social commentary, too. The first season of UnREAL, Lifetime's buzzy drama centered on the fictional Bachelor-esque reality show Everlasting, took an incisive look at the relationship between gender and power structures in the TV industry while also providing a healthy dose of heightened melodrama that the network's built its name on. From the first shot of UnREAL's pilot, the show made no bones about being an explicitly feminist concern. Guided by show creator and former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, it also forced critics and casual viewers alike to consider the oft-dismissed medium of reality TV as a complicated art in its own right.

While UnREAL was exposing the seedy underbelly of the Bachelor's cinematic universe, the real thing was making some surprising waves of its own. The 11th season of The Bachelorette may have kicked off with the risible conceit of allowing the male suitors to choose between two protagonists for whose love they'd be competing for, but once the dust settled, Kaitlyn Bristowe's stint as the show's focal point challenged the nasty double standards that female participants have faced throughout the series when it comes to sexual conduct.

The former Bachelor contestant's decision to engage in sexual intercourse with contestants before the show's notorious "fantasy suite" episode was seen as a sex-positive triumph; Vulture's Jada Yuan drew comparisons between Bristowe and The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and a segment of the season's "Men Tell All" episode was devoted to addressing the slut-shaming that Bristowe faced on social media (and from some of the show's contestants) as a result of her decisions. A year after the season aired, the reality franchise's female contestants are still coming forward to address the inequality of expectations that the contestants face.

It's strange that both a long-running reality-TV show and a freshman drama brutally satirizing said TV show would enjoy the same critical fate. Perhaps it's pure coincidence, too, that both The Bachelorette and UnREAL's most recent seasons—the former concluding last week, the latter coming to a close this past Monday—experienced similar dips in quality, even as the granular reasons for their respective dips differed.

For its part, UnREAL's second season has been considered, by many critics, a disappointment when compared to its enthralling initial run, a decline from highbrow drama-as-social commentary to lowbrow soap-opera theatrics. The season premiere, "War," set up an epic and destructive power struggle between Everlasting's executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her producer and mentee Rachel (Shiri Appleby), further complicating the themes of control and professional authority that the characters face on and off the set. As the two anti-heroines struggled to keep their footing in their male-dominated profession, the show's narrative path similarly struggled to stay steady.

Part of the thrill provided by UnREAL's first season was how tightly wound it was. Not unlike the masterful manipulation that Quinn and Rachel regularly exercise at the controls of Everlasting, the season's overarching plot was impressively self-contained; even when it threatened to veer off course near its conclusion, the finale wrapped every narrative loose end as tightly as a Chipotle burrito. Comparatively, the most recent season was a Seamless order that accidentally spilled all over the bag on the way to your apartment, with plot twists and narrative themes—baby-kidnapping, domestic violence, red-state racism, ethically questionable sports medication, mens' rights activism—thrown into the show's fray with little regard for cohesion or structure.

Perhaps the most surprising letdown of UnREAL's second season is the squandering of its topical, potentially provocative twist for Everlasting's show-within-a-show: an African American suitor in the form of pro football player Darius Beck (B. J. Britt). The gambit was revealed well before UnREAL's premiere, simultaneously raising critical expectations and capitalizing on the bittersweet irony of a fictional reality TV dating show showcasing a person of color while the protagonists of The Bachelor's franchise have remained, for a decade-plus, blindingly white.

Instead, the show's attempts to engage with race—both on America's television sets and in America's structural racism—came across as half-hearted and, in the case of a subplot involving police brutality against men of color, tone-deaf and ill-advised. Shapiro acknowledged in a recent interview that the police brutality subplot "[might not have been] our story to tell," and the refreshingly candid admission scratched at the surface of UnREAL's larger issue as it stands: The show's attempting to tell too many stories.

If UnREAL could be faulted for having too much going on, then The Bachelorette's most recent season concerned itself with the opposite, a few cheap thrills and little more. Despite suffering heartbreak on the previous season of The Bachelor, focal point Joelle "JoJo" Fletcher frequently seemed uninterested or completely unable to deliver the type of drama and passion the show's fans come to expect; for their part, her potential beaus largely resembled a stale loaf of Wonder bread—bland and almost hilariously identical to one another.

One contestant stood out more than the others, though: Chad Johnson, an extraordinary villain who exerted a macho, shaky volatility that even the likes of reality TV—an art form that routinely preys on the emotionally vulnerable and unstable—rarely sees come to fruition. During his stint on the show, "The Chad" (as he was recently referred to on spinoff Bachelor in Paradise) provided a considerable fountain of quotables and GIFs through his uncontrolled aggression and unusual eating habits; he also provided a disturbing portrait of male violence that UnREAL's second season attempted to address in a domestic-abuse subplot involving Rachel and her spurned ex Jeremy (Josh Kelly).

Despite the accidental enlightenment its previous season provided, though, it's never been The Bachelorette's M.O. to provide meaningful commentary on anything; it exists to entertain and nothing more. Obviously, UnREAL faces a different and heightened set of expectations—and perhaps we should ask ourselves whether that's fair to the show's creators.

UnREAL's second season might have been a mess, but it provided cheap thrills in its own right, too—sudsy twists buoyed by Appleby and Zimmer's stellar performances, two of the most notable dramatic performances on TV right now—and the finale's ludicrously shocking conclusion suggests that Shapiro and her team aren't changing course anytime soon. The reality of so much reality TV is that its creators feed viewers absolute trash, and we know what we're being fed, but we love the taste, too. UnREAL's recipe for drama might be increasingly hewing closer to what we come to expect from The Bachelor franchise than its most devoted critics would prefer—and that's a twist that no one could predict.

Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.

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