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Lifetime’s UnReal indulges the best and worst versions of itself in season 3

UnReal began as a brutal, incisive drama. Now recovering from a rough second season, it’s mostly just brutal.

Rachel (Shiri Appleby) literally grooms a male suitor and his man bun.
Bettina Strauss/Lifetime

I threw on the third season premiere of UnReal intending to see if it had found its way back to form after a train wreck of a second season. Four hours later, it was 2 am and I was blinking in surprised exhaustion at the screen, somehow having watched five episodes — none of which, I only realized after devouring them all in one greedy gulp, were even all that good.

Even when it makes vanishingly little sense, there’s something alluring about UnReal, Lifetime’s pitch-black drama about working on a reality dating show. But the magnetic, wicked core that can make it so compelling is exactly what makes UnReal’s sharp downfall one of the more frustrating TV stories in recent memory.

What began as an unflinching, incisive look behind the curtain at the soul-sucking practices of making reality TV in its first season became a muddled mess of all its most sensationalistic impulses in its second. The show turned its eye for slick melodrama from the set’s screwed-up power dynamics to the nation’s screwed-up racial dynamics by centering on a black suitor, but quickly proved it didn’t have much of substance to say on the subject.

Not even the deliciously masochistic relationship between showrunner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and star producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) could save UnReal as it careened toward disaster, resulting in one of the most disappointing sophomore seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Under pressure to keep delivering twists and exposing ever more disturbing secrets, UnReal completely fell apart. It was hard to imagine how it could come back at all.

With season three (which premiered February 26), UnReal is hoping to reverse some of the ill will it earned with that mess of a second season. So if you’re a frustrated fan who wants to know if it’s gotten any better, the good news is it has. But the bad news is it hasn’t improved nearly enough.

A new perspective and a woman suitor force a few key changes for UnReal

“Suitress” Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald) confronts her handlers over, in her defense, a truly unfortunate dress.

Since season two of UnReal ended with, among other things, a smoking car wreck and two dead bodies, the show finds itself with one hell of a deep hole to dig out of in season three. So this time around, UnReal tries to flip its own script.

This time, the main suitor of EverlastingUnReal’s not-so-subtle pastiche of The Bachelor, the show that employed co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro for years — is a woman playing a field of men rather than the other way around. What’s more, “female Elon Musk” Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald) is a determined multimillionaire businesswoman who strays far from Everlasting’s usual contestant mold.

Serena’s values and motivations morph in just about every episode, but UnReal gets closest to the vicious insight at which it once excelled when challenging the dynamics between Serena and her male suitors. A startling sequence in a later episode comes out of Rachel encouraging bumbling producer Chet (Craig Bierko) to ask the men about their views on feminism, leading to some of the supposed “good guys” revealing the angry misogyny lurking just beneath the surface.

The season also reevaluates its core cast of puppeteer characters. Rachel, a master liar with a flair for manipulation, returns to the set determined to practice “essential honesty.” The slightly less ruthless Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) tries to play the game harder in pursuit of running his own show. Quinn, once an unstoppable force who would make an excellent comic book supervillain, finds herself on thin ice with a furious network that doesn’t want any more backstage drama.

All of these adjustments are, as UnReal can be at its best, sharp and self-aware. The trouble is that they’re far outmatched by a series of cringe-inducing decisions that make it clear exactly how badly the show burned itself last season.

A second glance confirms that UnReal is still a mess

As I sat there after mainlining five UnReal episodes in a row, it took me maybe three minutes to realize that there are still so many things that don’t square up in this new iteration of the show.

Giving Quinn an arc with the highest stakes she can personally imagine — “do a good show or get exiled from the business for good” — is a decent call, especially given how good Zimmer is in the role. But her story swings wildly between Quinn furiously pursuing her own reality show “empire” and everyone drawing parallels between Quinn and Serena, the businesswoman who did everything right except find a good man. What Quinn herself seems to think changes with every passing scene.

Meanwhile, Rachel tries to dive into her mental health and traumatic past to downright perplexing effect. Though fleshing out her motivations and trauma is a good instinct, it unfortunately ends up proving that it’s just about impossible for UnReal to square what it wants to do with Rachel’s character with the scattershot portrait of mental health it had already established.

Also, that Rachel apparently pushed her abusive ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Josh Kelly) — who continues to have nothing to do outside glowering on the sidelines — into murdering two people is a sporadic topic of discussion that tends to end in “oh well, what can ya do” shrugs. Most startling still is the fact that the police shooting of a black character offscreen — part of Everlasting’s disastrous season starring a black suitor and UnReal’s worst and most confused moment to date never comes up once. For every moment in which it seems like UnReal has maybe figured out its problems, the next scene inevitably squashes it back down.

But this show’s greatest trick falls right in line with that of its fictional producers: UnReal knows how to distract its audience from the uglier truth. Even when it’s a mess, UnReal is a curled smirk of a show with an undeniable pull, if only because you want to see exactly how deep its depravity goes. The problem comes when you take a step back and realize that neither you nor the show has any idea how you got there at all.

The third season of UnReal airs Mondays at 10 pm EST on Lifetime.