This week, culture editor Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke gathered to discuss "Treason," the fourth episode of the second season of Lifetime’s drama UnReal. Read our complete coverage of the series here.
Todd VanDerWerff: One of the things I find brilliant about UnReal is that it's kind of, sort of (if you squint and/or are me) the first great drama about the effects of social media on society.
Let me explain.
Yes, on one level, UnReal is "about" a reality show, and thus might seem to have next to nothing to do with our Twitter/Facebook/Instagram world. But think about one of the show's central ideas, the one right there in the title: What's real? What's unreal?
UnReal essentially asks whether a relationship is fake when it's meant to seem real. To be sure, this is the same question that, say, The Americans asks constantly, but UnReal adds a level of serious performance and presents that performance to an audience of millions. The show is about creating a fairy tale out of nothing, while allowing everybody some space to acknowledge that the fairy tale is a lie.
Which sounds largely familiar to me.
Almost everything that happens on UnReal is a distraction from genuine emotion, from real pain. It's all performance art, for the cameras of Everlasting, but the "parent" show does a good job of explaining how we're all performing, all the time, wearing various masks for different audiences in our lives. These days, Facebook just makes it more obvious.
Look, I could be way off the map here, Caroline. Set me straight.
Darius’s health struggles are adding new layers to Everlasting
Caroline Framke: If there is a connection, I’d say it’s more in the arena of how there’s increasingly an emphasis on creating your own "brand," or pinpointing the exact combination of your personality traits that will make you (appear to be) the best version of yourself possible.
Everyone on UnReal is trying to figure out their brand or, in the case of the contestants, getting their brand handed to them with a seductive, poisonous smile.
And, yes, just about the easiest thing this show can do is to compare and contrast the fairy tale Everlasting sells with the insidious offscreen chaos that makes it happen. But this season is digging a little deeper into the idea of how important and fickle public perception is, especially with Darius, who for my money became 50 percent more interesting this week as he grappled with what the realities of his injury could mean for his future.
He’s trying to make himself look as good as possible, just like everyone else on this show. But his injury changed the playbook for his career so drastically that he’s now scrambling to figure out — say it with me — his brand. Is he an athlete? Is he a sportscaster? Is he a romantic lead? Who knows!
But it’s going to be fascinating to watch Darius go soul searching on the Everlasting set, of all places in this godforsaken world.
Todd: I loved watching Darius's slow-building terror at the touch football game. To protect his image, he has to play; to protect his image, he can't play. UnReal is great at Catch-22s like that.
But I'm also intrigued at how the show is using him to drive a wedge between Rachel and Quinn in a wholly realistic way. Rachel doesn't feel like torching a man's career, but for Quinn, that just might be gravy.
My other question after this episode is just what Coleman's game is. That dude is shady.
Why does Rachel seem to trust Coleman so much?
Caroline: I don’t trust Coleman at all, and I find it pretty indicative of what kind of shaky ground Rachel’s standing on right now that she — so far — is trusting him more and more.
Every time Coleman said something to her along the lines of, "You don’t need Quinn" (which was often), I was torn between cheering that someone was backing Rachel up on how good she is and the hair-raising fear that he’s just tearing her away from Quinn to further some other agenda.
So, in other words: business as usual for UnReal.
I’m surprised that Quinn and Rachel became so diametrically opposed so quickly — I guess Coleman is pretty good at what he does — but I can’t deny the power of a scene like the one where Rachel goes to comfort Quinn about her dead father, only to leave shaking in rage and fear.
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are so incredibly good at portraying their characters’ simultaneously co-dependent and deeply distrustful relationship, with Zimmer spitting acid while Appleby’s entire face quakes. It’s fun when Rachel and Quinn are chain-smoking pals with matching tattoos, but goddamn if they’re not each other’s most compelling enemy, too.
Todd: Yeah, I'm really divided on whether I like UnReal better when Quinn and Rachel are smiting all who come before them or when they're trying to kill each other with their minds.
The show really needs both sides of their relationship to work, and it's amazing to me how deftly the writers have managed to balance these two completely different types of relationship between the two women without it feeling like they're straining.
There's going to come a point, I suspect, where I roll my eyes every time they switch loyalties again (probably season four, if I know myself), but for now, it's sort of thrilling to watch the two of them determine just how much they trust each other.
But when it comes to the show navigating tricky situations, which it's doing with aplomb, it's probably time to talk about the one thing about season two that isn't working at all: Chet.
Namely: What the hell is the show trying to do with Chet? I'm honestly at a loss.
No, really, what’s up with Chet?
Caroline: Hell if I know.
Even if he’s pretty much always been my least favorite character, I know why Chet was part of the first season. The show needed a person to represent the male chumminess that sells Hollywood deals, squeezes out more experienced (or more talented) women like Quinn, and generally doesn’t give a rat’s ass about being decent to anyone but himself and/or his chosen bros. As much as watching him in action made my skin crawl, I knew exactly why he was there.
It would be amazing if Quinn and Rachel were totally free to be their vicious selves, but insofar as UnReal cares about such things, it wouldn’t be realistic to not have someone like Chet on that reality show set.
This season, though … ugh. Just, ugh. "Enlightened" Chet is somehow even more irritating than Straight-up Douchebag Chet, with his constant focus on emasculation and putting women in their rightful place.
But the real reason he’s not working — and, as far as I’m concerned, has never worked on the same level as the rest of the cast — is that he’s always so predictable. We always know what he’s going to say and do, and nine times out of 10, it’s just awful.
TL;DR: Pretty much the only way I’m going to care about Chet getting arrested for violating his custody rules is if it keeps Chet off the show. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Todd: Oh, God, I just realized we're going to pivot into a men's rights plot, aren't we?
This is going to be about how Chet got screwed on parental rights, which is one of those things most everyone can agree really does disproportionately hurt men, compared with women. Essentially every article you read about men's rights has a section where the writer says, "They're pretty much assholes, but they have a point about parental rights!" because they do.
Is UnReal going to try to use this to make Chet sympathetic? I'm normally in favor of TV shows complicating their characters, but I'm not sure UnReal has done the legwork to complicate Chet. Hell, Coleman is already a much more complicated, much more sympathetic, much more interesting version of the guy.
Caroline: Part of me wonders whether keeping Chet in was a network mandate. I honestly kind of hope this is the case.
If you read the New Yorker’s recent profile of UnReal co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (and you should!), there’s a pretty revealing aside about how Lifetime told Shapiro she needed to keep in Rachel’s surly ex Jeremy, despite her wanting to write him off after season one. (So far, it doesn’t seem as though UnReal is using Jeremy in the romantic lead sense Lifetime apparently had in mind, but that is A-okay by me, since Jeremy is only marginally more interesting to me than Chet.)
But, yes, there’s no way this isn’t veering in a men’s rights direction. It could be delicious to watch women like Quinn and Rachel, who have no tolerance for bullshit, take on men’s rights, but at this point I’m mostly just feeling preemptive exhaustion.
Todd: "Preemptive exhaustion" is generally a good way to view Chet in general. There are a lot of elements of UnReal that probably could be rolled over from season to season, but all it really needs is for the conflict between Quinn and Rachel to be sizzling.
If nothing else, season two has proved that it can generate interesting new tension with a new cast of characters on the show within the show, and that it can tackle larger topics than just, "Is reality TV a morally reprehensible madhouse, y/y?"
It will be interesting to see if it actually follows through on some of that boldness, or if it will continue to feature extraneous stories that feel network-mandated. Let go of the reins, Lifetime! Let's see Chet get fired into the sun.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us in comments!
I (Todd) will try to stop in throughout the day to talk about the show with everyone.