For all those who think Hollywood is an amoral, power-hungry, cash-starved nightmare world, UnReal has a message for you:
Lifetime's hit new show — which returns for its second season on June 6 — is a scripted drama that delves into the behind-the-scenes action at a Bachelor-style reality dating show called Everlasting, operating with the kind of vicious glee usually reserved for predator cats ripping into the weakest member of the herd.
In the series' first season, disillusioned feminist Rachel (Shiri Appleby) was trying to keep her sanity and some shred of dignity intact as she and her strictly no-bullshit boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) manipulated contestants into uttering the kind of perfectly calibrated sound bites that make great television — no matter the cost.
The drama that ensued was bigger, juicier, and far darker than anything that's happened on ABC's The Bachelor franchise, where UnReal co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro reluctantly worked as a producer creating "real" sound bites for years.
In this second season, UnReal ups the stakes even more when Quinn and Rachel go against the network's wishes by casting NFL quarterback Darius Hill (B.J. Britt) as a black "suitor" (Everlasting speak for "bachelor"), breaking a pattern that The Bachelor still hasn't after 20 seasons. The network's reluctance to cast a black man instead of what Quinn calls "another small-dicked white boy from Indiana" makes for some of the season's most pointed and skin-crawling moments.
Just as significantly for UnReal, the second season also follows a Rachel who's fully stopped resisting the rush that comes with making people say exactly what she wants. She's now running the show, fully embracing the dark side of producing captivating reality television.
The first scene of season two says it all, as Rachel and Quinn get matching tattoos on their wrists they can show off with raised fists that read, "Money, Dick, Power."
UnReal lets women not just take charge but eviscerate anyone who gets in their way
One of UnReal's smartest choices is fleshing out the actual Everlasting contestants, so they're more than just the one-dimensional "villain" and "wifey" labels the producers ascribe to them.
As we get to know these women beyond the carefully crafted cardboard cutouts America's going to meet when viewers tune in to watch Everlasting, the extreme measures Quinn and Rachel take to make them dance to their tune become even more horrifying — and fascinating. There's something deliciously twisted about watching two women pull all the strings on Everlasting, a show that exploits women's deepest insecurities in the name of compelling television.
As Shapiro, UnReal co-creator Marti Noxon, Appleby, and Zimmer have all said explicitly, Quinn and Rachel are the kind of cutthroat antiheroes we're used to seeing men play. They've called Rachel their Walter White — Bryan Cranston's Breaking Bad drug dealer — and stated that UnReal is, at its heart, the story of women embracing the total power that comes from acknowledging their "dark side."
"We threw out the word ‘likability’ really early on," Shapiro told the Huffington Post when the show was premiering in June 2015. "We just don’t care."
UnReal's second season challenges the idea of just how "unlikable" Quinn and Rachel are even more directly than the first, showing us just how much the men behind Everlasting hate taking orders from these two — and, really, any — women. After Quinn rips the show out of the hands of oily producer Chet (Craig Bierko), he comes back focused on one thing and one thing only: getting the show back from the domineering women who keep defying "nature" by emasculating everyone around them.
And so the Everlasting set becomes an all-out battleground — but as Chet should know by now, the last people you want to antagonize are Quinn and Rachel.
Behind every salacious moment and jaw-dropping insult, there's constant, expert manipulation
Watching UnReal is like throwing back a shot with an arsenic chaser. Rachel, Quinn, and their various underlings are ruthless in the pursuit of drunken fights, teary confessionals, and total meltdowns. If something will get them money and ratings, they'll do it.
But as UnReal presents it, the art of manipulation is exactly that — an art. While Quinn has an almost literal killer instinct for where to find drama, it's Rachel who knows exactly how to make it happen. She circles the contestants, pinpointing their weakness with a laser focus before reaching into their chests, ripping out their hearts, and letting them bleed out — as long as the camera angle's right, of course.
If Quinn's a shark, Rachel's a snake charmer. "It's like a couplet," Rachel tells a shaking newbie producer who's preparing to make a contestant crumble. "I say something, and she finishes the sentence."
Their glares could — and often do — reduce their contestants, co-workers, and suitors to dust. Appleby and Zimmer's chemistry isn't just electric but acidic, burning through the camera lens so fast you almost forget their characters are doing truly terrible things in the name of ratings. As Rachel puts it to her room of producers: "We don't solve problems. We create them, and point cameras at them."
Soon enough, you realize you've fallen into the same trap as their millions of Everlasting viewers. Who cares about the lengths Quinn and Rachel go to when the fallout is this much fun to watch?
UnReal airs Mondays at 10 pm Eastern on Lifetime. The entire first season is currently available to stream on Hulu.