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UnReal season 2, episode 6: Can this show be saved? (Probably.)

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A rough season has way too many things going on, with no throughline.

Coleman (Michael Rady) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) oversee the show.
Lifetime

After a week off from discussing Lifetime’s UnReal due to the July Fourth holiday, culture editor Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke are back to discuss "Casualty," the sixth episode of UnReals second season. You can catch up our previous coverage of the series here, and discuss this week’s episode in the comments below.

Caroline Framke: Carving out an hour to watch UnReal can feel like setting aside time to feel stressed beyond belief. Two seasons in, we know the show not only wants to tell stories that will make its audience uncomfortable but relishes the opportunity to do so. As the Everlasting producers circle their contestants — not to mention each other — with vengeful bloodlust and visions of explosive ratings in their eyes, we know the plot turns are going to be vicious. But just how much is too much?

Last week’s episode, "Infiltration," felt a whole lot like "Fly" — the season one episode that had a contestant go off her bipolar medication and leap off a roof, indulging the most in melodrama and the least in subtlety of any other chapter.

The incredible invasion of Ruby’s privacy and manipulation of her father was devastating, if expected, given what we’ve seen Quinn and Rachel do in the past (see: locking a woman in a room for hours, forcing her to face her traumatic past, and hiring a woman from central casting to playact as her concerned mother).

The gross way in which Quinn got Ruby eliminated is also the splashy, ratings-grab Everlasting twists we’ve come to expect from UnReal. For better or for worse, Jeremy assaulting Rachel felt like a different kind of betrayal — and to be honest, I didn’t have faith when the credits rolled on "Infiltration" that the series would treat it as as such.

On that count, I’m incredibly relieved to be wrong.

As directed by star Shiri Appleby, "Casualty" recognizes the horror it put Rachel through in "Infiltration." As she struggles to keep it together, Quinn and Chet struggle to help her even as they (as always) put the show first, and Coleman struggles to understand what the hell kind of operation he’s joined.

Watching a drunk, physically intimidating Jeremy corner Rachel was horrifying — I’m not exaggerating when I say I had nightmares after watching — and the best thing "Casualty" does is juxtapose Rachel’s quiet terror over what happened with her manic attempts to move on. It's wrenching to watch, and serves as the foundation of an episode that, for my money, is the closest season two has come to returning to the tone it set in season one.

What’s this season supposed to be about?

UnReal
Putting the "fun" in "funeral."
Lifetime

Todd VanDerWerff: Caroline, I'm glad you liked this episode so much, because while I liked a lot of individual elements of it, I'm starting to enter "Can this show be saved?" territory.

I'm not nearly as down on UnReal’s second season as a lot of other critics (the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, among others, has been unimpressed), but at a time when I feel like UnReal would be better off doubling down on the pieces it's already put on the board, it just keeps introducing new ones.

Yes, Rachel's reaction to Jeremy's assault was beautifully acted, and in directing "Casualty," Appleby filmed Rachel's breakdown in wide shots that only underlined just how little she felt at home in the carefully sculpted and scripted world she's a part of. (Also nice: an early use of shaky-cam to underline her immediate reaction to the assault.)

But it also seemed like the whole assault storyline came completely out of nowhere. UnReal is essentially declaring that every character who isn't Rachel or Quinn is whatever it needs them to be on an episode-by-episode basis, and it's starting to wear on me just a little bit. And now, after this week’s episode-ending reveal that Adam is back (for some reason?!), we're just headed ever deeper into whatever heart of darkness this is.

Don't get me wrong. "Can this show be saved?" is a pretty harsh assessment when the answer is basically, "Yes," and I have some thoughts on why I think UnReal wound up so scattered so quickly.

As both you and I have pointed out in the past, almost all the criticisms of season two (its tendency to wear its themes on its sleeve, its over-the-top melodrama, etc.) could easily be applied to season one as well, which is something the audience that first caught up with season one via binge viewing is probably more aware of now that it's watching the show week to week. But this season has also cranked everything all the way up, and I'm not sure there's a way back down in the immediate future.

Caroline: Oh, I’m still confused as to what the main thrust of season two is supposed to be, between Coleman, Darius, Quinn versus Chet, Rachel versus Quinn, and so on. I just really liked "Casualty" individually, which hasn’t quite been the case with previous episodes, even if I’m still more interested in season two than a lot of other people are right now.

Outside of Rachel’s storyline, this episode at least tried to let the contestants interact and exist outside the producers’ manipulations, which season two has generally been weak on outside of Ruby, who was eliminated last week. (This weird tendency to ignore the contestants is worlds away versus season one, which immediately fleshed out several contestants and was better for it.)

Then again, we’re also down to the final five contestants, and "Casualty" has just revealed that one of them is a police officer. Of course, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what her name is, which is a problem.

Todd: You're right that this episode has a stronger spine than previous ones, using Rachel's abuse as something to ground everything else that happens. But the show's general interest in behind-the-scenes machinations has essentially caused Everlasting to feel like it's occurring in an entirely different television show half the time.

Caroline: Yeah … I was hoping that introducing Coleman would put an end to to Quinn and Chet’s dueling shows once and for all, but if anything, Everlasting has become even more confusing under his direction than it was when Quinn was arranging romantic dates as Chet kept stripping the contestants down to their bikinis. As it stands right now, Everlasting is still half storybook romance and half MTV Spring Break–style shitshow, and I’m not convinced that’s what the UnReal writers’ room is going for.

This season’s flat contestants make it hard to get invested in Everlasting itself

Quick, name one thing about these contestants that isn’t "football" and "Hot Rachel."
Lifetime

Caroline: UnReal seems to have also forgotten that while devoting a lot of time to Everlasting’s behind-the-scenes manipulations is what yields the kind of salacious moments Quinn and Rachel themselves would kill for, a big part of why season one worked was that it really did get us invested in the outcome of Everlasting itself. This season, I couldn’t care less who wins, or why. There’s just no room.

Todd: To borrow a terminology from reality TV, Ruby has already gotten a winner edit. I will be enormously surprised if she isn't somehow brought back to win Darius's heart in the end. For a while there, right in the middle of the chaos, UnReal made an attempt to examine whether love can be found on a reality show. Not a great attempt, mind, but definitely an attempt. And then the episode prior to this one tossed it aside when Darius eliminated Ruby.

But I can just about guarantee you where this season is going wrong. If you look at it, it has a really strong core, based on three ideas:

  1. Quinn and Rachel are stronger together but also more awful together. (A carryover from season one.)
  2. Reality TV turns race into as much of a stereotype as anything else. (An interesting new idea to anchor a new season of Everlasting.)
  3. The common denominator between these two things is that white men still control the TV industry and make terrible decisions. (A semi-carryover from season one.)

And if UnReal had really stuck to those three ideas and come up with some interesting ways to juxtapose Ruby and Darius's journeys with Quinn and Rachel's journeys, it might have been onto something.

But it just keeps tossing new stuff at the wall, in a way that increasingly feels desperate. The show is just blatantly retconning Chet to serve its story needs, and while I think that's probably the right call (if a storyline isn't working, just bail), it's indicative of how UnReal maybe bit off more than it could chew, especially when it comes to the race stuff, which has been ... clunky.

Caroline: To say the least.

I love(d?) Ruby, but that’s likely due more to Denée Benton’s wonderfully empathetic performance than the writing of her character, which largely sounded like the work of someone had just finished speed-reading the Wikipedia entry on Black Lives Matter. And having Beth Ann go from defending a Confederate flag bikini to tearfully asking Darius to be her baby’s father in Alabama could have been incredibly interesting, if only Beth Ann had been granted more depth before the episode where she was eliminated.

UnReal is definitely trying to say something with Darius, Ruby, Beth Ann, and the network’s inability to treat a black suitor as a person. But more often than not, it ends up sounding just as impressed with itself for simply including a black suitor and mentioning race as the people making Everlasting.

How this season became 500 good ideas, struggling for space in one show

UnReal
Series star Shiri Appleby directed "Casualty."
Lifetime

Todd: Yes, I liked Ruby, but she often seemed as if she were simply talking in position papers about how we deal with problems of police violence, a frequent problem on shows that feel obligated to mention some societal issue but don't really have a deeper take on it. (Also, this week, Rachel and Darius discussed how slavery had once existed the South, in a really ridiculous scene.)

I keep comparing Unreal season two to Homeland season two, because it's still got roughly the same strong core as season one, but it can't figure out a way to believably evolve that core, so it keeps swapping in new elements and mixing and matching them while hoping for lightning to strike. Unreal hasn't yet gotten to "Abu Nazir is in the US, and he can kill people by hacking their pacemakers, we guess? True love, lol!" but the fact that I’ve had this thought is telling, I think.

Or, put another way, this season has a lot of interesting ideas, like sending Darius to Alabama, but they should make up the entirety of episodes, not B-stories. By jumbling them all together and cranking the volume all the way up, UnReal is doing none of them any favors.

That said, I think we're finally getting to an interesting place with Quinn deciding to take out Coleman, even if it tanks her relationship with Rachel, and allying with Chet to do so. That has some potential.

Caroline: Maybe the issue we’re hitting right now — in episode six out of 10 this season — is that while "Casualty" is an important episode for the show in general, it probably should have happened three weeks ago.

Todd: One final thought along these lines: I opined above that the show probably plays differently when those who caught up on season one in a binge watch season two week to week (though I'll agree that season one laid stronger structural groundwork from the get-go), but I also think it's making a pretty common season two mistake: building to a reveal that will retroactively make a bunch of pieces make sense.

It seems clear to me this reveal will involve Coleman, but all this setup is inevitably frustrating to experience week to week. A binge show can get away with it. But when you’re watching episodically, the seams show much more readily.

UnReal will probably be just fine. Everything it's trying to do that's flailing is mostly a matter of degree. A little tweaking in the offseason and an attempt to strengthen its structural core will likely lead to sweeter fruit in season three. But it's not hard to feel like season two is a grab bag of 500 good ideas that maybe don't all belong in the same show.

Discuss the show in comments below

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