This week, culture editor Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke gathered to discuss "Guerilla," the third episode of the second season of Lifetime’s drama UnReal. Read our review of the first two episodes here.
Caroline Framke: If the first two episodes of UnReal’s second season were all about shaking up the status quo, with Chet and Quinn declaring a war in which they’d each present their own version of Everlasting to the network, "Guerilla" is probably our first look at what season two will actually look like.
With new showrunner Coleman (Michael Rady) sweeping in amid plenty of fanfare — even though he has little idea of how to run a reality show — the pressure is still largely on Quinn and Rachel to produce a decent episode, while Chet and Jeremy fart around in the distance trying to get slow-mo boob shots.
This is all very different from season one's behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make Everlasting. The reality show UnReal chronicled in season one — though it performed spectacularly in the ratings for its own salacious and horrifying reasons — was relatively straightforward. All Quinn and Rachel had to do was deliver the kind of schmaltz Everlasting had been producing for years. This time, however, Chet’s need to mark his territory has created basically a whole second show to track alongside Quinn and Rachel’s.
And to be honest, I miss the more straightforward structure of UnReal’s first season, which pretty much focused on the making of Everlasting rather than the insidery network business that season two is currently caught up in.
Part of the reason is that I have a really hard time tolerating Chet’s bullshit. His particular brand of toxic machismo is nothing new, and the extent to which the network is letting him jeopardize a hugely important show — which apparently broadcasts episodes the same week they’re filmed, a particularly generous stretching of reality on UnReal’s part — seems downright idiotic, bros be damned.
To give UnReal the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that it’s at least trying to tell the story of how less qualified men can rise in the ranks over more experienced women, if only because men tend to promote and reward other men. But how much more does Chet possibly have to give?
Todd VanDerWerff: I somehow always forget that Everlasting apparently airs shortly after it's filmed. It definitely ups the show's dramatic stakes, but if you know anything about how television is made, it … strains credulity, to put it kindly.
That said, I'm really enjoying this season, and "Guerilla" is a good example of why. In some places, it feels like a season one greatest hits album — Quinn is monstrous, but for her art; Rachel is torn; men get all the benefit anyway — but there's a looseness to it that I find particularly engaging.
UnReal is kind of stuck in one regard. It can't tell an overarching story in the same way that, say, Breaking Bad could. The series isn’t just covering one season of Everlasting. Indeed, every season brings a new story, which means every season needs to regenerate conflict. That's hard to do!
Where I think UnReal is succeeding is by introducing the idea that having a black suitor is something Rachel thinks could effect real societal change. That seems like a generous reading of the situation to me, but I like the way it's subtly tilting the show's dynamics in certain directions, especially when it comes to Denée Benton's Ruby, who's slowly being corporatized, her message of racial struggle made safe for the cameras.
That's meaty and fascinating stuff to chew on, and I'm surprised at how deftly UnReal is handling it. Of course, it's also doing so in very non-subtle ways.
Does UnReal wear its themes on its sleeve too much?
Caroline: I agree that UnReal isn’t especially subtle about the points it’s trying to make. But it has always telegraphed its themes, and very purposefully so. As a semi-fictional peek into the methods The Bachelor reportedly uses to get its stories, Everlasting and its producers depend on explicit tropes, like the good girl "wifey," the "black bitch," or the drunken hot mess "villain."
So if UnReal feels more on the nose this season than last, I’d recommend rewatching the pilot. Quinn is just as harsh about getting what she wants, just as casually sexist, racist, whatever -ist it takes to get the footage she needs. In fact, UnReal's only consistent thread of nuance is in how deftly Rachel manipulates her surroundings — and that’s because subtlety is her job.
None of UnReal is subtle, because almost nothing it’s depicting has ever been subtle.
Todd: I made this argument over the weekend with a friend, when saying that Shiri Appleby more than deserves an Emmy nomination (that she won't get, sadly). Essentially, UnReal is built atop the bones of the primetime soap — just as The Bachelor is — and that means the show necessarily has to be more performative than others. It makes grand statements because the television it apes makes grand statements.
But those proclamations come with a side of intriguing nuance. In some ways, everything Quinn does makes her one of the worst people alive. So why does she keep losing out to men who are just as bad as she is morally and much worse at their jobs? Rachel wants to create meaningful art (more or less), but she's probably best at reflecting America's grotesqueness right back at it. Does that mean she's somehow corrupted by what she does?
It's easy to forget, but shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad took more complex ideas and grappled with them through the lenses of traditional TV structures and genres. (And it's not like either show was terribly subtle in the process either.)
To me, the "UnReal isn't subtle enough" crowd is essentially saying, "I don't think primetime soaps can be quality television," and/or, "I don't think primetime soaps can get at real moral quandaries." Two seasons in, I'd say UnReal has more than proved that's not the case.
Caroline: I completely agree! So … good talk.
No, but seriously, I think there’s also something in the fact that even as UnReal hammers home the themes that make Everlasting run, the machinations around those explicit themes are much more complex, and anyone who can’t get past the network executive who speaks in loglines is stuck on the most surface-level stuff the show is doing.
In that respect, it’ll be interesting to see how Quinn finding out that Rachel went behind her back in a bid to regain control of the show will mess with Everlasting’s existing power dynamics. At the end of "Guerilla," we see Quinn vowing revenge and Coleman proposing an alliance with Rachel to do Something Meaningful. And since the episode ends with Coleman and Rachel making out on top of a desk, I’d say it’s safe to say we’re about to experience a whole new kind of partnership on Everlasting.
The future of Everlasting is unclear. Where it ends up might depend on Darius.
Caroline: For as much as we’ve talked about what happens behind the scenes of Everlasting, we haven’t really touched on the on-camera personalities, i.e., Darius and the women vying for his attention. Last season, Adam and the women fighting to date him became such a critical part of why UnReal worked. There hasn’t been a whole lot of room to explore the new batch of contenders between all the producer power plays, but what do you think of them so far, Todd?
Todd: Like I said, I'm intrigued by what the show is doing with Ruby, who seems like its latest attempt to say that trying to do anything meaningful within the guise of Everlasting is doomed to fail. And Quinn's brazen manipulations of Brandi have some real teeth to them.
But I'm mostly interested in how the show is presenting Darius, who seems to almost be a male version of Rachel in some ways. (I think it's telling that so many of the onscreen personalities this year act as direct foils for Rachel.) He actually has a lot to lose from being on Everlasting, particularly after it's hinted that he's suffering from some sort of injury that could end his football career.
I also think it's intriguing the way UnReal is playing up his status as a black quarterback — something that within very recent memory was considered somewhat unusual and surprising. (Recall the time Rush Limbaugh essentially said Donovan McNabb wasn't that great, on ESPN, no less.)
In exploring the idea that black men can't just be good but have to be so much better than a comparable white man, UnReal is potentially playing with fire. But it's got a secret weapon in B.J. Britt, who's endlessly charming and has a surprisingly deep reserve of empathy he can seemingly turn on and off at will.
Also: I am here for Graham wandering through the woods, trying to host some sort of steeplechase. More of Graham in a suit in weird situations, please!
Caroline: Ruby and Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) are my favorite producer-contestant pairing so far this season by a mile.
Even aside from Ruby being on Everlasting for very different reasons than we’re used to — inconvenient new feelings for Darius aside — I’m excited to see Bowyer-Chapman do more than shake his head at Rachel and Quinn. Jay’s method of producing is much more upfront, and therefore much riskier. But I’ll be thrilled if it can somehow pay off.
As far as Darius goes … I have a feeling we have no idea who he is just yet. Based on the ending of "Guerilla," my money’s on him having had a preexisting injury that he’s been trying to cover up all along. No matter what, he’s shown himself far more willing to play along with Rachel and Quinn’s storybook fairy tale than they — not to mention Chet — were anticipating. There’s got to be a reason for that.
UnReal’s first season got much more interesting as suitor Adam fell deeper into Everlasting’s web, and I think the same will hold true for season two as we get to know Darius — and whatever it is he’s been hiding.