Every week, critic-at-large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to talk about Lifetime’s splashy scripted drama UnReal. This week, we’re talking about "Ambush," the seventh episode of the second season. You can catch up our previous coverage of the series here, and/or discuss this week’s episode in the comments below.
Todd VanDerWerff: UnReal is a show about Rachel. That much seems obvious. Yes, Quinn is important. Yes, Everlasting is important. But Rachel is the key to the show working.
And in season two, the show has sort of lost sight of her. She makes decisions on the spur of the moment. She does things that probably should have been set up better. And the struggles with mental illness that have been so central to her journey from the pilot onward have fallen by the wayside.
I suppose you could say all of this is in keeping with her character. But season one kept Rachel in a bit of a protective bubble, where each and every step of her journey made complete character sense.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I have no idea why Rachel calls the cops on Darius. Yeah, she and Coleman want to make important TV. Yeah, she's feeling adrift. But this feels like something that should have been foreshadowed at all before being dropped into the middle of an episode.
It's a shame, too, because Rachel has been snapping back into focus in these last two episodes, but the series keeps looking around for other things to gawk at. And in this case, it's, y'know, one of the single biggest problems with structural racism this country faces. Tossed into a B-story. Sure!
The police shooting storyline here might be the clumsiest one on TV so far — and that’s saying something
Caroline Framke: Rachel being incredible at her job despite everything else is one of the anchors that kept season one of UnReal from coming untethered.
For season two, it was obvious from the start that she was making her way toward another breakdown on the level of the one that landed her back under Quinn’s thumb in the first place (i.e., Rachel crashing the Everlasting finale to call the show "Satan’s asshole," which we saw in a glorious flashback in the pilot).
So we can talk about Rachel’s unraveling, but I’d rather start with what a horrified Jay said to her after learning about Romeo getting shot by police, because I think it’s important, and that UnReal might not have heard it anyway: "This is not your story to tell."
Ever since Darius and Ruby got cast on Everlasting, I’ve been anticipating/dreading UnReal’s veering into racism and police brutality. I think both UnReal and Everlasting could have made this story meaningful, but whatever the hell this B-storyline was on "Ambush" can’t be it.
Rachel and Coleman calling the police on Darius is a weird and frankly amateur move. But I was almost more surprised when I realized that a cop accidentally shooting Romeo happened with 10 minutes left to go in the episode — and Romeo never shows up again, because as Jay knows, this episode was never about Darius, or Romeo, or racism.
It was about Rachel.
Todd: The most fundamental error this episode makes is to focus the entirety of this story on Rachel, to the degree that where it ends is on her emotional trauma, not the emotional trauma of, say, a black man who just saw his best friend get shot by the cops and fall into unconsciousness.
This is just bizarre, irresponsible storytelling. And it casts a pall over an episode that has a lot of great stuff in it and really does advance a bunch of story points that the series needed to advance to bring this season to a roiling conclusion.
But, really, the problem stems back to UnReal's desire to do a story about race in America, and then have precisely nothing to say about it beyond, "Race is a thing that is a major dividing line in America. Discuss."
The recent season of Orange Is the New Black has drawn criticisms for its own handling of racial topics that affect black Americans, as interpreted through white writers' pens. And Paste's Shannon M. Houston has a great piece on this topic that similarly touches on how even Shonda Rhimes was stymied by how to turn the Black Lives Matter movement into good TV.
But I will be honest: Compared with how UnReal handled this story beat, Orange and Scandal (both of whose storylines I really liked, I should add) look like Shakespeare.
Caroline: "Bizarre and irresponsible" about covers it. I was actually hopeful when Jay got to deliver Rachel's reality check about just how twisted this particular move was, but then he walked away, and so did the last black person to be onscreen for the rest of the episode.
Ultimately, a police officer shooting Romeo was a side note — which is about the same way the Race Issue has been treated all season long.
So much about this sucks, but it’s a sloppy choice even if you look at it from a storytelling perspective.
While Rachel and Coleman convince themselves they’re saving the world, and Yael ("Hot Rachel") records Jeremy spilling Everlasting’s secrets — I’ll just go ahead and assume she’s an undercover journalist — there are several compelling stories waiting to be told about the black people both UnReal and Everlasting cast, and neither show has tried because … well, honestly, who knows.
Ruby getting eliminated was a big deal but was poorly placed within the season. Chantal had glimmers of hope in the first couple of episodes but has since become nothing more than "dead fiancé girl," and her scattering her fiancé’s ashes on an Everlasting date should have been a much bigger deal than just as an annoyance for Darius.
Meanwhile, one of the top four contestants is a black police officer who has had maybe five lines of dialogue, all of which started with, "I’m a cop, so…"
Whatever story Everlasting was trying to tell about race in America, the pressure constantly haunting Darius and athletes like him, and/or black men as romantic leads, has been completely lost — and the same holds true, it sucks to say, for UnReal itself.
If this season of Everlasting made more sense, so would this season of UnReal
Todd: I'm going to pivot to something that may seem completely unrelated but sort of is, which is to say that UnReal season two is having a lot of the same problems as Friday Night Lights season two. (Am I going to keep comparing this second season to other bad second seasons that shows eventually overcame? Undoubtedly!)
See, Everlasting isn't what UnReal is about, but it is what UnReal needs to help focus and refine its seasons, just as Friday Night Lights struggled when it downplayed its football core.
Because the best stuff in this episode, weirdly, is the return of Adam and the shenanigans played around that character, as the rest of the show scrambles to keep up with whatever Quinn is doing.
Sure, it feels like everybody involved is counting on us to have seen a bunch of webisodes that were never produced or released for public consumption, but I'm okay skipping over parts of a story if it makes everything else better.
And, not coincidentally, the stuff with Adam is also where the episode is most about Everlasting. And when the show is at the center, everything else gets pulled into focus, from how Rachel and Coleman's desire to create important TV clashes with Everlasting's central mission to how America is less interested in Darius than it was Adam.
This is good, juicy stuff, with solid subtext and even meta-commentary on the season's struggles. And it even builds us more or less believably to a place where Rachel descends into catatonia due to a mistake of her own making, not anything that happened to her.
And then the show just throws it all away in favor of chasing something it believes to be more attention-grabbing, just as Friday Night Lights descended into stories of sexy hookups and murder.
(Sidebar: Coleman and Yael are totally making an exposé documentary together, aren't they?)
Caroline: (I … can’t lie, I’d enjoy that very much.)
Anyway, that comparison to Friday Night Lights seems about right to me. The moment when I realized I didn’t care what happened on Everlasting anymore was the moment I realized I wasn’t going to fight too hard on UnReal’s behalf this season. UnReal can handle many storylines at once, but I think you’re right that it’s crucial to have Everlasting at its center to keep everything even close to grounded.
So while I can understand Darius being reluctant to do the show, I can’t believe UnReal was still beating that drum with only three episodes left to go. It’s not interesting, and it kept Everlasting from having any kind of larger season arc. You’d think Rachel and Quinn might’ve noticed that, but nah.
UnReal got a ton of praise for being splashy and dark and mean in its first season, and accordingly, all of those qualities have been ramped up to 11 in season two. But if it wants to do "topical," it has to do better than this apparently throwaway racism plot.
The only real hope I have left is that UnReal managed to steer out of one hell of a skid in season one, following a poorly done episode that ended with a bipolar contestant's suicide ("Fly") with one of the series’ most daring and well-done episodes to date ("Savior").
The problem is that season two of UnReal hasn’t given me nearly the confidence I had in the first season that the show knows when it’s steering dangerously close to a cliff.
Todd: It's too bad that the police shooting plot line makes this easily the clunkiest UnReal episode to date, because, again, there was some good stuff in there if you went digging.
I love the idea of waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to Coleman, while simultaneously starting to fear that, yes, he really is the kind of guy Rachel could be happy with and she just might fuck that up. Similarly, I am enjoying the show's increased skepticism of the "money, dick, power" pact from the season premiere, as Quinn becomes frightening and possessive. This is all potentially strong stuff, with lots of room for double-crosses and big emotional reveals.
But there needed to be a better way to bring Rachel to the brink of losing everything than having her randomly decide to sic the cops on some black men in the name of making a TV show. I don't care if Rachel is a good person. I care if she's a believable one. And in this case, at least, UnReal lost sight of the story it was truly trying to tell.