Sunday, 7 August 2016

Review: 'UnREAL's' first season is great, mostly thanks to Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer

Over the summer, I'll be watching and writing about a whole host of shows, ranging from beloved long-running series to those eyeballed by very few viewers. To see the articles that I've written, click here; for my list of shows to watch, click here.

Watching UnREAL's freshman season, there were two shows with which I drew numerous parallels: Mr. Robot and How to Get Away With Murder. In the case of the former, it's a combination of both Shiri Appleby and what the show did for the network. UnREAL debuted just six months after Lifetime aired Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, and while I'll withhold judgment of that having not seen it, the shift in both tone and ambition is substantial. Joining Devious Maids as Lifetime's second scripted series, UnREAL put the network on the map as one that could produce content worthy of being in the Peak TV conversation, much like Mr. Robot did for USA Network. Appleby's nuanced performance as Rachel Goldberg, often provided with apparent apathy, mirrored that of Rami Malek's, and I couldn't help but wonder whether it was no coincidence that the two premiered within weeks of each other.

The comparison to How to Get Away With Murder, however, is less favourable. Utterly crazy and outlandish moments that should shake up the very nature of the series are often brushed aside with little fuss, or even treated as a normal occurrence, and this is done far too frequently. Take the suicide of Mary in the sixth episode, for instance. Such an event should alter the shape of the remaining four episodes, yet very little changed (*), despite the following hour being one of the season's strongest. Equally, the tendency for scenes to have almost forgotten things that have come before is frustrating (see: Jeremy (Josh Kelly)), particularly because it becomes so difficult to establish what is development and what is the characters being flawed and just reverting back to the status quo, irrespective of previous interactions. Both of these aspects mirror ABC's soapy drama, which is, at times, more a collection of buzz-worthy moments than a coherent, grounded story; UnREAL didn't necessarily stray much into this territory, but it toed the line on occasion.

(*) The immediacy with which the crew on Everlasting went back to work reflects the nature of the reality genre (certainly one where the series airs while still in production, as opposed to the entire season being filmed first), I suppose, and the harsh world these characters live in - particularly Quinn (Constance Zimmer), who is rarely one for empathy - means that devoting an entire hour to Everlasting's production shutdown is more than might be expected. Still, it felt like the show wanted to rush back to its normality, regardless of whether it had earned it.

Portraying a genre like this necessitates the use of moments rather than actual good TV in the show-within-the-show universe of Everlasting, and the production crew's never-ending effort to find a number of twists to be gasped at on Twitter grounds the series within the realities of shows like The Bachelor. But that doesn't mean that UnREAL needed to lend itself to that type of storytelling, despite my appreciation of the irony that, in producing a very highly mediated and distorted depiction of these contestants for the sake of drama, that drama has extended to the crew's real lives to the point of my slight likening of the whole thing to a daytime soap. That being said, it certainly made for entertaining viewing, though my investment in the season was much more focused on the characterisations than the moments. In truth, I think UnREAL was hoping both would land; sadly, the latter did not.

Indeed, Rachel provided much of the pleasure to be taken from the first season as her constant struggles in her return to the show, her mentality, etc. made for immensely compelling viewing. For almost the entirety of the ten episodes, I felt a great deal of sympathy, inexplicably so at times as she manipulated and lied her way through the day in order to get that crucial shot. At one point, she describes herself as a "manipulative bitch," and it's impossible to disagree with her. By the halfway point, anytime she was on screen, I was stuck questioning whether Rachel was manipulating whomever she was speaking to, manipulating herself, or just being completely straight. More often than not, the answer was a combination, only adding to the layers upon layers with which she is constructed. It was perhaps her most distinguishing feature, and the show had no hesitations in taking viewers for a ride with it.

One thing was clear throughout: Without Appleby, UnREAL is almost certainly an impossible uphill battle that fails to captivate by the end of the opening hour. Sure, Constance Zimmer is a terrific part of the cast, and her Emmy nomination was certainly a deserved one, but ultimately, it's Rachel who's at the heart of the story, and Appleby managed to capture all of the character's intricacies to make her into the captivating on-screen presence she is. Even when she was simply on screen not doing anything of note, the resting lack of expression with which she carried herself said so much about Rachel's mindset and the type of person she is. That Appleby so effortlessly returned to that at times having been completely overwhelmed by a different, more potent emotion is a true credit to her performance, and it allowed the show to portray Rachel both as that "manipulative bitch" and someone who deserves sympathy, turning her into a fascinating character.

Zimmer certainly played her part too, and Quinn was a wonderfully strong character who was still fundamentally flawed. It's no surprise that she and Rachel have such a complex relationship, one that ended the season with a back-and-forth of:

"I love you. You know that, right?"

"I love you, too. Weirdo."

Their pairing throughout kept intriguing as it was never clear where they stood. (No, that's not quite the same as my aforementioned point about the show failing to differentiate between development and characters ignoring the blatantly obvious issues in front of them.) Their partnership in the finale to take down both Adam (Freddie Stroma) and Chet (Craig Bierko) was terrific, and despite Quinn's supposed betrayal in preventing her from having "love" with either Jeremy or Adam, Rachel's acceptance that it was for the best not only keeps her somewhat sane but also demonstrates exactly how desperate she is. To stick with Quinn in spite of what she did is a move that shows how much of an outcast she's become; after Jeremy humiliates her in front of the crew, her already low reputation is effectively pummelled into the ground, and Quinn's pretty much the only person who will continue to accept her. Rachel realises that and I have no issue buying into her going back to Quinn, nor is it a bad thing that Quinn remains highly protective of her best producer.

In terms of the show-within-the-show itself, I was surprised by how much I actually cared about all that was going on with Everlasting. Given how much I loathe reality TV, and reality TV of this genre in particular (*), that UnREAL made me invested in Everlasting is quite an achievement. A lot of that almost certainly comes down to the blend of what was going on both behind-the-scenes and in front of the on-screen cameras, but I certainly found that it wasn't completely abhorrent. Indeed, the story the first season attempted to tell with Adam was entirely fascinating, particularly when you consider the manipulation of his public image that was going on, both from the crew and his own attempts to prove himself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch him try and push Rachel and Quinn as far as they'd budge in order to improve his image and his prospects post-Everlasting, and equally as compelling to watch him be forced into doing a whole bunch of things he didn't really want to do, but that were necessary to draw in big ratings and to entertain viewers.

(*) This applies to UnREAL as a whole: Any time I'd have it recommended to me, the utter disdain I have for shows like The Bachelor overcame my desire to see what all of the hype was about. I'm glad I decided to look past that.

There were certain other threads I enjoyed, some of which didn't last long. Everything involving Faith and her coming out was terrific, doing a great job both at showing her struggles over whether or not to come clean and at showing Rachel's humanity in preventing her from doing so, knowing it would backfire spectacularly. The build of Rachel and Adam falling for each other was insanely obvious but it made a lot more sense than whatever it was they tried doing with her and Jeremy. Quinn's attempt to build her own show was great, given how in control UnREAL made her seem in contrast to Chet, who, as evidenced by the finale, didn't have a clue and his power was mostly just an illusion.

But I couldn't shake that feeling that UnREAL was, at least somewhat, unsure at times what was actual development and what was characters not wanting to face the hard truths and just accept that maybe things, as they are, will change for the better, and that nagging feeling stifled my enjoyment of an otherwise great first season. Still, there was no denying that both Appleby and Zimmer were terrific over the ten episodes, and their brilliance certainly made it easier to overlook minor issues that I might have had with a show with less capable actors at the helm.

Now, onto season two...

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