While the first season of UnREAL garnered glowing reviews (not least from us), its follow-up was what can only be described as a big old mess. What had been a caustic takedown of the popular yet problematic programme, The Bachelor, had itself turned into an overwrought soap opera. Gone was the clever scripting that made the satire so biting while simultaneously giving us characters to care about – and which garnered the show a Peabody Award and two Emmy nominations. Instead, we were treated to plot lines that were never fleshed out, and a sensationalism that – like the Everlasting show-within-the-show – seemed hell-bent on getting ratings at any cost.
Some of this dip in quality has been put down to some behind-the-scenes upheaval – again, rivalling the drama in front of the cameras. After the first season, Marti Noxon, who co-created with series with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, left, citing ‘creative differences’. Her absence was felt. The second season’s premise – the introduction of a black ‘Suitor’, which promised to delve into elements of race on prime time reality TV shows – was ultimately unrealised, with the subtle and the satirical giving way to over-the-top shenanigans, before ending with a double murder.
So, there’s a lot riding on Season 3. Can the new showrunner ease up on some excessive elements, and rein us back into the quality and zest of the first run? Or is the programme in freefall? Judging by the first couple of episodes, it’s still all to play for.
The start of UnREAL’s third season finds producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) being whisked away from some sort of hippy goat farm commune, where she’s been washing away her past sins in “the cleansing fire of truth” and a vow of celibacy, back to the set of Everlasting. Her quasi-mother, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), is on thin ice, due to the antics of the previous season (the meta-ness of the similarities between UnREAL and Everlasting are given a nod in some nicely placed lines of dialogue), and is smarting from her failed flash-in-the-pan romance with John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd). Then, there’s her ongoing love/hate relationship with boss Chet (Craig Bierko), who is still suffering a seemingly never-ending mid-life crisis, this time with a 20-something blonde. Rachel, meanwhile, has to deal with former flame and addict/murderer Jeremy (Josh Kelly) – the less said about which, the better.
The success of Everlasting is pegged on a female Suitor (in the parlance of the show, a ‘Suitress’). Serena (Caitlin FitzGerald) is a Silicon Valley success, described as a female Elon Musk, and – unlike the Suitors of Season 1 and 2 – she is genuinely here to find love. Having foregone a dating life in order to concentrate on her career, she finds all that’s missing in her life is the family she now craves. This, of course, mirrors, Quinn’s (and, to a lesser extent Rachel’s) experience, although neither would dream of admitting it.
If the second run of UnREAL was pegged on a Black Lives Matter zeitgeist, this one seems to be plugging in to the ongoing mainstreaming of feminism following Trump’s election. It is White Feminism writ large, as rich, workaholic women contemplate the realities of ‘having it all’. The suitors are, at this stage, underdeveloped, ciphers who represent the different kinds of men (and futures) available to Serena. One is a suave businessman, one an aid worker with a topknot. One has a very short temper, while another is just… short. It’s a reminder of how well the first season handled its contestants, who were fully-formed individuals with their own specific back-stories. For the cynical viewer, it doesn’t bode particularly well for what’s ahead.
What made UnREAL work initially was the takedown of the reality format from an insider’s point of view, and the many ethical lines crossed by the people in charge. It presented Everlasting as a competition between producers which saw its contestants as pawns on a chess board, easily sacrificed in favour of the bigger picture, and the sacrifices they made to their very selves in order to produce a successful reality programme. Hopefully the carefully rendered characters of Rachel, Quinn et al. won’t – this time – be sacrificed in the same way. It’s still too soon to tell whether we will repeat the mistakes of the last season or return to the more streamlined and caustic first season, but fans will be cautiously hoping for the latter.
UnREAL Season 3 is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive weekly on Tuesdays.